Can Tennessee bounce back to compete in SEC East?

Kevin Connaghan looks at whether the Volunteers are still an SEC contender following their losses to Oklahoma and Florida.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

(AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

Can Tennessee bounce back to compete in SEC East?

Tennessee entered the 2015 season as a popular dark-horse pick to take the SEC East, which would have made them potential SEC champions and College Football Playoff contenders. Things haven’t exactly worked out that way through the first four weeks of the season.

They opened the season with a win over a good Bowling Green team, but suffered devastating defeats against Oklahoma and Florida, with a routine victory over Western Carolina sandwiched between the losses. The manner of those losses hurt more than the results, as Tennessee could, and arguably should, have won both of them.

Against Oklahoma, the Vols entered the fourth quarter up 17-3. They had stifled the Sooners’ offense through the first three quarters, only to allow them to mount two long touchdown drives and force overtime, which Oklahoma won.

Against Florida, the Vols went 27-14 up with a little over 10 minutes remaining in the game before allowing the Gators to put together two touchdown drives to win the game. Once again they had held their opponents in check for three quarters, but failed to finish the job. Much of the fallout has focused on head coach Butch Jones’ decision to take the kick to go up by 13 after the Vols’ final touchdown, rather than trying for the two-point conversion to go 14 ahead.

What can we expect from Tennessee the rest of the way? At 2-2, and having a home loss in the one non-conference game that truly mattered, the chance of being a dark horse in the playoff race is pretty much over. However, they still have everything to play for in the SEC East. They host Arkansas and Georgia in the next two weeks — win both of those and it’s game on for the rest of the 2015 season. With a depth chart heavy with freshmen and sophomores, the Vols’ outlook beyond that is rosier.

On offense, the Vols lean heavily on the run, with running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara combining with mobile quarterback Joshua Dobbs to great effect. Hurd and Kamara each averaged 3.5 yards after contact against Bowling Green, and forced a combined 15 missed tackles.

The Tennessee passing game has been underwhelming, and Dobbs carries some of the blame for that, but he has only graded negatively as a rusher twice in his career. As a trio they rushed for 254 yards and two touchdowns against Florida, who have one of the best defenses in the nation. All three have at least two years of eligibility remaining, meaning the Vols running game is in good hands for the foreseeable future.

The defense also has some standouts in the form of D-lineman Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In other words, this is a roster talented enough to make a run at the SEC East title and improve throughout the season. After all, they were only a few plays from being 4-0. But the question at this point seems to be more about intangibles, and whether they suffer any setback from the blown leads against OU and Florida. If they can, this is a team that can compete in the SEC.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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