(Credit of photo goes to WPSD Local 6)
An air of energy and excitement has surrounded the Tennessee football program going into 2015. Many believe 2015 to be the year Tennessee football ascends back into the national spotlight, and its easy to see why given how the Vols played at the end of 2014: winning three out of the last four regular season games and thrashing Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl. And if those things weren’t reason enough for fans to feel positive about 2015, the loss of only four starters from the 2014 team is sure to add more optimism in Knoxville.
2015 has the ingredients to be a good year for Tennessee, but what would it take for 2015 to be a great year for the Vols? Here is a checklist of five things for fans to watch for in 2015:
1. Keep Josh Dobbs healthy – Quarterback Josh Dobbs proved in 2014 that he can run the kind of up-tempo offense Butch Jones wants to run at Tennessee. A new offensive coordinator in Mike DeBord likely won’t be a stumbling block to Dobbs’ development as Jones opted to keep the offensive terminology the same from 2014. Giving Dobbs the familiarity to the offensive terminology and a talented supporting cast of running backs (sophomores Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) and deep group of wide receivers (senior Pig Howard, juniors Marquez North and Jason Croom) will give him the best chance to improve on his 2014 campaign, but there is one issue left remaining with Dobbs: injuries.
It’s true that Dobbs’ health has not be an issue during his time with the team, but Dobbs has yet to start a complete season with the Vols. Dobbs thrives on using his athleticism to make plays, and it remains to be seen how he holds up from taking hits from an entire season. Losing Dobbs for any amount of time due to injury could prove disastrous as three true-freshman quarterbacks will be behind him on the depth chart.
2. Beat Florida and Georgia – As exciting as the wins against South Carolina have been for the last two seasons, fans have had to suffer the disappointment of losing close games against SEC-East division rivals Florida and Georgia and are likely more than ready to see this change. The wins against South Carolina have been huge in terms of Tennessee’s road back to the national spotlight, and another win against the Gamecocks would be just as important in 2015, but what would be a better way to signify growth in this Tennessee football program than to snap losing streaks against Florida and Georgia, which date back to 2004 and 2009 respectively?
3. Win the SEC East – Is winning the SEC East a tall order for a team who missed on getting a bowl-game appearance just two years prior? Perhaps, but it’s also true that the SEC East is not as strong as it has been in years past. This means that Tennessee has an opportunity to make a big splash in 2015 by winning the SEC East. Doing so would likely mean beating Florida and Georgia as was mentioned in #2, but it would also likely mean beating Missouri, the SEC East division winner from the last two seasons. Tennessee’s SEC-West opponents include Alabama and Arkansas, two tough conference games. These games, and the challenge they offer, further emphasize the importance of getting SEC-East wins.
4. Land a New Years Day bowl – Making it to a bowl game was the goal for 2014, and Tennessee achieved that goal. So what would be the next step from just making it to a bowl game? How about making it to a New Years Day bowl? While it might be a stretch to say Tennessee could win the SEC Championship or go to a BCS bowl in 2015, playing in a New Years Day bowl like the Outback Bowl is certainly an attainable goal for this team. Playing in and winning this bowl would show continued growth in the program, which is a very attractive quality to high-school recruits.
5. Continue to win recruiting – If 2015 truly turns out to be the Vols’ return to the national stage, it will be due in no small part to Tennessee’s successes on the recruiting trail since Butch Jones’ arrival. Landing top-5 recruiting classes nationally has been a huge part of the Vols’ success on-the-field, but if 2015 is to be anything more than just an anomaly, continuing to win on the recruiting trail is crucial.