Do yourself a favor. Take every memory you have of the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers, put them in a box, board a plane headed to the barren tundra of the arctic circle, drop off the box in a random location, travel hundreds of miles away, hack the nuclear launch codes, direct a nuke toward that box, and witness the pain of losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt disintegrate into a mushroom cloud and become a mammoth wall of radiation.
The purpose of this drawn-out process isn’t for the sake of forgetting the anguish, however. It’s symbolic of how relevant 2016 is to 2017.
Breaking news: It isn’t.
In football, momentum at the conclusion of the previous season doesn’t freeze itself so it can thaw out just in time for the upcoming regular season. It vanishes. If coaches and players hold this expectation, their shelf life is usually short. If they’re fully invested in the idea that the conclusion of every season leads to a full press of the reset button, they’ll win 10 games.
As New England head coach Bill Belichick said following his fifth Super Bowl, “We’re five weeks behind.”
So as Butch Jones and company voyage into 2017, let’s forget about what transpired in 2016 and move forward. Here’s everything you need to know about the 2017 Tennessee Volunteers.
There are plenty of bad cliches in sports, but the cliche that always holds water is that in college football, coaching is everything. A great coach in the college ranks can keep a program relevant for decades despite wavering levels of talent. On the flip side, a program can feature a host of 4 and 5-star recruits, but if the coaching staff is comprised of minds who can’t discover ways to properly utilize that elite talent, then it’s probably going to be 5-7 galore.
I’m looking at you, Texas.
In Tennessee’s case, there’s a narrative floating around that the coaching staff has improved from last season. This belief stems from the fact that the staff is almost entirely new. It’s a pleasant surprise that Butch Jones was proactive after a miserable coaching performance last season, but in reality, the new staff is a mixed bag of underwhelming known commodities and coaches who have briefly flashed their capabilities.
Starting with the known, we know who Butch Jones is at this point. After a decade of head coaching, the old dog won’t learn too many old tricks. He’ll always be an excellent recruiter and should demand respect for stabilizing a Tennessee program heading straight into a Derek Dooley iceberg. But time and time again, Butch has failed at managing in-game situations that require anticipatory thought. In close games, Butch can’t be trusted to make the correct decision, and that should scare fans.
We know who quarterback coach Mike Canales is. Given his pedigree, it’s a bit surprising he holds a paramount position at an iconic program. Canales’ most memorable coaching stint came over a decade ago at N.C. State when he worked with Phillip Rivers in 2001 and 2002. In those two seasons, Rivers was a run-of-the-mill quarterback, but in 2003, Rivers became a candidate for the top overall pick after lighting college football on fire.
Canales’ departure might’ve had something to do with that.
Then, at North Texas, the Mean Green’s non-existent passing game contributed to numerous losing seasons. With a new quarterback starting in Knoxville this season, Canales isn’t necessarily the guy who moves the needle and there isn’t much evidence to suggest he can “coach a player up.”
On the positive side, we do know that Bob Shoop is a skilled defensive coordinator. From 2011 to 2015, his defenses ranked 20th, 24th, 34th, 8th, and 25th nationally in defensive efficiency. Last season, the Vols placed 60th due to an in flux of catastrophic injuries. If Tennessee’s defense can maintain its current starting lineup for the majority of 2017, then Shoops’ coaching is at a level where he can maximize the positives and cover up the deficiencies.
Opposite Shoop is a familiar face to the program, but an unfamiliar face to his new position: First-time offensive coordinator Larry Scott, who during the offseason claimed that while the offensive system won’t change, the play calling will. This is a welcome sign for an offense that was occasionally stale last season, but despite Mike DeBord’s unpopularity, Tennessee still managed to average 36.4 points per game last season. With a new quarterback, there’s no telling how effective — or ineffective — Scott will be.
In the trenches, Tennessee is balancing the known (defensive line coach Brady Hoke) with the unknown (offensive line coach Walt Wells). Hoke’s hire was arguably Butch’s best move of the offseason, while the promotion of Wells is potentially a hidden gem. In 2014, Football Outsiders — an advanced analytics website — began tracking stats for college offensive lines. That season, New Mexico State finished first in adjusted sack rate, posting a score of 361.5 (anything over 100 is considered good). The offensive line coach? Walt Wells.
It appears nowadays that every team has talent, but regardless of how much talent a particular team has, it always circles back to coaching.
For Tennessee, there’s the obvious question at quarterback: Who’s going to replace Joshua Dobbs? But the question should actually be, “Which quarterback fits what Butch and Scott want to do on offense the best?”
In Butch’s ideal world, Quinten Dormady is under center or in the shotgun navigating Tennessee’s offense. As much as fans adored the theatrics of Josh Dobbs, his scrambling ability was an accessory to a system tailor-made for pocket-passing quarterbacks. There’s a belief that Jarrett Guarantano offers higher “upside” because he’s a mobile quarterback, but if an offense features an elite operator within the pocket, the upside is just as high.
Starting and ending the season with Dormady at quarterback is what Butch wants, but unfortunately, Dormady’s lack of playing time over two seasons (only 39 pass attempts) is concerning. That’s why lackluster performances against North Texas in 2015 and Appalachian State in 2016 are so frustrating — Dormady wasn’t given the reps.
So despite being in Butch’s system for two seasons, he’s barely played more snaps than Guarantano, who had all of last season as a redshirt freshman to absorb the playbook like a sponge.
Whomever the quarterback is, they’ll likely spend the majority of the time handing the ball off to John Kelly. Not only are both quarterbacks inexperienced, but the receiving cupboard is bare outside of Jauan Jennings. Luckily, Kelly is the perfect running back for Butch’s system and he’s running behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the SEC.
Where it gets really shady for Tennessee is on defense, particularly in the front seven. The Vols’ secondary is without question the defense’s strongest position group, but every secondary is a product of their front seven. Gone is the edge-rush duo of Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen, with the former being the program’s all-time sack leader. Gone is Jalen Reeves-Maybin (NFL) and Darrin Kirkland Jr. (season-ending meniscus surgery). Shy Tuttle and Khalil McKenzie are the projected starters in the interior of the defensive line, but both struggle to stay on the field.
So the question becomes, can Hoke transform this battered defensive line into something respectable? Given his track record of success as a position coach, the answer to that specific question is yes.
The Rest of the SEC East
Tennessee isn’t alone in the “what the hell are we going to be” party. The entire SEC East is out of sorts. Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason got hurt against Appalachian State, Florida’s offense looks abysmal, Missouri’s defense looks even more abysmal, Kentucky struggled to put away Southern Miss, and while South Carolina and Vanderbilt both noticed impressive wins on Saturday, neither program is an unstoppable juggernaut.
Although I’ve listed a ton of negatives in this season preview, if I was writing a season preview for Florida or Georgia, I’d have the same trepidations.
Tennessee has 8-4 (for the third season in a row) written all over it.
As preferable as it would be to witness the Vols shock the college football world and win the SEC East, there are too many holes. We can’t assume that a first-time coordinator will somehow surpass last season’s offensive production. We can’t assume that the front seven is potent enough to assist a talented secondary. We can’t assume Butch is fully aware of his flaws and has addressed them properly.
Too many quality players left the program, and while there’s “talent” on the current roster, the coaching isn’t where it needs to be for a program of Tennessee’s stature. Luckily for the Vols, the SEC is a hodgepodge of flawed teams.
The projection for 2017 dates all the way back to pre-2016 — fans were aware that 2017 was a rebuilding year of sorts. That’s why there was so much urgency surrounding the program last season.
While the projections of last season didn’t come true, the projections of this season ultimately will.