Hello, expectations. It's been a while. Earlier today, ESPN's Mark Schlabach released a completely meaningless top 25 ranking for 2015. It's eight months before the season starts, weeks before signing day, and days before even the deadline to declare for the NFL draft. Our picture of 2015 is limited, at best. But people love rankings, and so sportswriters release rankings. And these rankings were different than any rankings in quite a long time: they included Tennessee.
The Vols have not been on anybody's top 25 radar in the preseason since probably 2008. In 2009, they were coming off a 5-7 year and had a new coach. In 2010, they suffered significant losses and again had a new coach. The Fulmer/Kiffin attrition was too much for expectations in 2011, and when the pieces finally showed up for expectations in 2012, nobody (especially not his assistants) trusted Derek Dooley. So the Vols did the new coach thing again in 2013, and did the "losing the whole offensive and defensive line" thing in 2014, with the weakness in the trenches keeping any of the traditional Year Two hopes far away from the Vols.
In 2015, Tennessee might not end up ranked in the preseason polls. But they are back on the radar. In addition to Schlabach, they are in the top 25 at Fox Sports, Saturday Down South, and SBNation's Ohio State blog. The Vols return 8 starters on defense and 10 starters on offense, and they only graduate five players from the entire 44-man two-deep from the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa. And with apologies to one of the toughest players on the team in Jacob Gilliam and a defensive end who blossomed into a key piece of a shockingly solid defensive line in Jordan Williams, none of the five losses are causing Vols fans to lose any sleep. Take the 6th most returning starters in college football, make one of them a young quarterback who has dazzled at times, make another a powerful running back with the most impressive freshman season since Jamal Lewis, another a freshman who is already among the sack leaders in the SEC, another a lockdown corner, another the receiver who did this. . . you get the idea. Add a recruiting class that is currently ranked #3 in the country and includes three defensive linemen who have been 5-star recruits within the last month (5* DT Khalil McKenzie, 5* DE Kyle Phillips, 4* DT Shy Tuttle), and you can see why people outside of Knoxville are taking notice.
The Vols won't be getting national championship talk in 2015--an offensive line that was nothing short of abysmal in 2014 and a coaching staff that hasn't ever won at an elite level will keep those discussions far away--but expect them to be a trendy dark horse pick to win the SEC East, and expect talk of win totals that far surpass anything Tennessee has hit in recent memory.
It's not just that the Vols will be improved in 2015, although that is a major part of it. It's that everyone around them seems to be collapsing. Schlabach has Tennessee at #23, and anyone else who has the Vols in the top 25 will probably have them near the bottom. But whereas recent history would've suggested that a borderline top 25 team that plays in the SEC and schedules the big boys in non-conference play would be looking at a 7-5 season--as a case in point, the 2014 Vols played five teams in the preseason top 20 and seven teams in the preseason top 30--the 2015 Vols only play three teams in Schlabach's top 25: #8 Georgia, #10 Alabama, and #21 Arkansas. An Oklahoma team that fell apart in 2014 and has made coaching changes in the offseason is nowhere to be found. Neither is a Florida team who has been terrible two years running, changed coaches, and may finally be avoiding the "because they're Florida" ranking. South Carolina went from the top ten at the beginning of 2014 to 6-6 at the end of it, and no one seems to expect a quick bounce-back. And two-time defending East champion Missouri is under the radar, just the way they like it.
Given that Arkansas comes to Knoxville, if the broader community's expectations look something like Schlabach's, it's not inconceivable that the Vols could be preseason favorites in ten of their twelve contests this fall. And while "10 wins or fahr Butch" isn't a rational expectation going into 2015, Vols fans won't be the only ones expecting a major step forward. In 2014, Vegas set the win total for Tennessee a half-game above the five they hit in 2015. Some Tennessee homers expected a two-game improvement--especially if they believed that teams like South Carolina and Florida were highly overrated in preseason--but only those who thought the offensive line had no bearing on the results of football games expected any huge breakthrough.
In 2015, a one game improvement--that 7-5 record that would've been cause for celebration in 2014--will be seen as a disappointment. After all, the Vols were a fourth quarter collapse against Florida away from 7-5 in 2014, and they return almost every important player from that 2014 team. 8-4 will be a sign that things are progressing as they should, and Vols fans can talk about 9-3, or even the possibility of 10-2 if things break right, without earning the laughter of everyone outside the state. It's not national championship talk, but it's something. It's respect. It's expectations. It's being looked at as a legitimate challenge and not as an easy win.
It's good to have expectations. Makes us a target for every other team on our schedule of course, but. . . sometimes that's fun too.