Here's why the Tennessee Vols can win the SEC this year
The Tennessee Volunteers have been waiting for their chance to make a run at the SEC, and with several key players hitting a top level last season, 2016 might be the year. The Vols lost to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama in the first seven games of the 2015 season, but finished strong with five straight wins including a 45-6 win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. With such a strong end to the year, they’ll be looking to win the SEC and get themselves into the College Football Playoff in 2016.
The strength of this unit is in the running game, and while no returning offensive lineman who played more than 100 snaps had a positive grade last year, they have the talent at quarterback and running back to make up for that. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was our 10th-highest graded running quarterback last year, while the duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are as good a pair of running backs as you’ll find in college football. Hurd is likely to be the focal point of the offense once again in 2016, after rushing for 1,286 yards on 275 carries and forcing 65 missed tackles and scoring 12 touchdowns in 2015.
Tennessee don’t have the same level of defensive talent, but what they do have is enough talent to make a difference, especially up front. Defensive end Derek Barnett is the star, but he’s not the only player who can make a difference here. Corey Vereen started opposite Barnett and had something of a breakout year last year. Registering seven sacks, five hits and 25 hurries, and grading positively against the run as well as rushing the passer. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is another player to get excited about, with a strong performance against the run last year. He’s also a pretty good blitzer too, registering six sacks, five hits and six hurries on just 60 pass rushing snaps. With players like these, the Volunteers will get after opposing quarterbacks in 2016.
They might have a three-headed weapon in the running game, but defensive end Derek Barnett is still the star. Only Ohio State’s Joey Bosa graded higher among 4-3 defensive ends in 2015, with Barnett racking up 10 sacks, 10 hits and 42 hurries last year. Our pass rushing productivity signature stat measures pressure on a per snap basis, with weighting towards sacks and hits, giving a better indication of a pass rushers productivity than sack total alone. Last year, Barnett’s PRP rating was 13.1, 10th among 4-3 defensive ends, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him better than total next year.
Breakout player to watch
Dobbs is the quarterback and Hurd gets the bulk of the carries, so it’s easy to see why running back Alvin Kamara is almost the forgotten man, but there’s a strong case to be made to say that he is actually the best player in the Tennessee backfield. Our elusive rating signature stat looks at how many missed tackles a player forced as a runner and a receiver, and how many yards after contact per carry they average, giving a better view on a running back’s production than just yardage totals. With 28 missed tackles forced on 106 carries, 13 on 35 receptions, and averaging 3.75 yards after contact per carry, Kamara had the fourth-best elusive rating in the nation at 109.2, ahead of even LSU’s Leonard Fournette, admittedly on a much smaller sample size. Make no mistake about it — Kamara has the chance to be a big playmaker in the SEC this year.