5 reasons why the Tennessee Volunteers can win the SEC in 2016

The Vols may have strong competition, but Jeff Dooley explains why they stand a chance to take the conference.

| 4 months ago
(Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

5 reasons why the Tennessee Volunteers can win the SEC in 2016

The SEC is one of, if not the most, hotly contested college football conference races every season, and the 2016 version should be no different.

LSU has a stacked defense, an experienced quarterback in Brandon Harris, and maybe the best player in college football in running back Leonard Fournette. Alabama is bringing back a ton of talent on defense, despite losing several players to the NFL draft, and in particular the pass-rushing combination of Jonathan Allen on the interior and Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson on the outside could be one of the most disruptive forces in the country this season. Ole Miss is a contender, with QB Chad Kelly one of the top five returning Power-5 players at his position in PFF grades, and Georgia will combine a very good defense under new head coach Kirby Smart with one of the nation’s best running backs in Nick Chubb.

While all of those teams are viable contenders, there’s another team that is very capable of winning the SEC this year: the Tennessee Volunteers, who haven’t won even a share of the SEC East title since 2007. Here are five reasons why the Vols are contenders this year:

1. DE Derek Barnett is one of the best players in the entire country

This is a bit of a spoiler alert, but when PFF releases its ranking of the best college football players heading into the 2016 season, Barnett is going to be right up there near the top. He earned the highest PFF pass-rushing grade among returning Power-5 edge defenders, and fifth among all 4-3 DEs with 62 QB pressures (including 10 sacks). Unlike some of the other top edge rushers in the country, he played well against the run, too, and he will lead what should be one of the nation’s best defensive fronts in 2016. Expect him to challenge Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett as the country’s best pass-rusher this year.

2. Barnett isn’t the only potential star on defense

Jalen Reeves-Maybin earned the 23rd-best PFF grade among all returning linebackers, excelling as a run defender in particular. Cameron Sutton took a bit of a step back in 2015, but two years ago was one of the most productive cornerbacks in the country, earning the No. 23 coverage grade among all corners and allowing a very low catch rate (just 44 percent) and passer rating (51.6) on passes thrown at him. His 10 passes defensed were the 10th-most in the nation. One other player to watch is defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, who was posting excellent run-defense grades in limited snaps last season before suffering a leg injury that should be fully healed by the start of the season.

3. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara might be the best running back duo in the nation

The Vols running game would be in good shape with Hurd alone, as last season he rushed for 1,286 yards and 12 touchdowns, en route to earning the 25th-best PFF grade among returning RBs and breaking the sixth-most tackles, with 65. But Kamara was even better on a per-snap basis than Hurd, earning the nation’s seventh-best RB grade among returning players despite a limited workload, and the third-best elusive rating (PFF’s measure of how effective a back is at generating yards on his own). He was the second-most dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield, behind only Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, helping to make his way onto our list of the most difficult backs to tackle (LINK). Hurd and Kamara give the Vols two excellent weapons to work with on offense.

4. Joshua Dobbs is one of the best running QBs in the country

Dobbs ranked No. 10 in PFF rushing grades among returning QBs last year, and was particularly good against SEC competition. That made up for his negative passing grade, as he enters the season as the second-best returning SEC QB in overall grade behind only Ole Miss’ Kelly. There are certainly areas of improvement for Dobbs as a passer, but he showed promise in 2015, producing a passer rating of 90 or better in seven of his 13 games, excelling on middle intermediate throws (10 to 19 yards downfield between the hashes) and producing a positive passing grade when blitzed. If he can achieve even modest improvement as a passer, that combined with his running ability should be enough with a strong backfield and talented defense to contend for the SEC East title.

5. The schedule is relatively kind to them

No SEC schedule is easy, but a lot of things broke favorably for the Vols in 2016. Back-to-back October road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M should be challenging, but they avoid LSU and Ole Miss out of the West, and get Florida and Alabama at home, while their toughest non-conference game is Week 2 versus Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. It’s not unrealistic to think that a team with Tennessee’s returning production could emerge with two or fewer losses with this schedule, which would put them right in the SEC championship mix.

| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.