Will Shelton - Kahlil McKenzie
We've seen small steps of progress from Tennessee's most prized recruit. But with Shy Tuttle out for the season, now is the time for big moves from the big man in the middle. Numbers 1 and 2 were the first two defensive tackles on the field to start the second half against Georgia; they can announce whoever they like as the starters, but against downhill teams like Arkansas, Georgia, and most definitely Alabama the Vols will rely on the biggest bodies in the middle like McKenzie. He can't do it alone and won't be asked to. But if he can avoid the freshman wall and keep progressing, I think he has a chance to show up in those big ways in the second half of the season. He'll have to for the Vols to upset Alabama, but even if that's not to be, the schedule that remains should give him plenty of opportunities to introduce himself.
I_S -- Josh Dobbs
I know it's the easy answer, but it's the right one. The back half of the season is not exactly murderer's row offensively. Alabama is the only team with an offensive line in the same league as Arkansas and Georgia. So while the defense's penchant for giving up big plays concerns me quite a bit, I'm more worried about the offense's ability to keep humming. They've been hit and miss so far this year, and there are a couple teams (I'm looking at you, Missouri and Vanderbilt) who have proven themselves pretty stout on D. If Tennessee's offense isn't clicking, the Vols could easily post a 17-13 (or the like) loss to either of those squads, and the good feelings from the Georgia game would dissipate. How does Tennessee prevent that? By getting consistent performance from Josh Dobbs. Dobbs isn't going to turn into an all-American quarterback, but he is an elusive runner and can be accurate enough to get the job done as a passer. If he's contributing 70 yards a game on the ground and putting his passes (especially his mid-range passes) close enough for his receivers to make plays, Tennessee should be able to score enough points to bank eight wins. As for the ninth? Well, you ain't gettin' that without a career day from the man that makes the offense go.
Nathanael Rutherford - Jalen Hurd
The obvious answer to this is Josh Dobbs, but I like to dig a little deeper when selecting the most important players most of the time. For the second half of the season, Jalen Hurd is the most important player for the Vols because of the diverse skill set and tenacity he brings to the team. Aside from Alabama and probably Missouri, the Vols won't be facing many stout defenses in the second half of their season, and Hurd should be able to name his yardage total in those games. Hurd will definitely be important in the match-up with Alabama and will need to fight for every yard he can get, and any pressure he can take off of Dobbs will be (Butch's favorite word) critical. Dobbs needs to flourish in the passing game and his run game, and Hurd will be able to make that happen by making defenses respect the traditional run game by having solid games.
Hunter Turner -- Chance Hall/Jack Jones
Josh Dobbs is the most important Vol, but he can't do it alone, and he can't do it without blocking along the offensive line. Tennessee lost both right guard Dylan Weisman and right tackle Brett Kendrick early in the first half against Georgia, and after a brief but ineffective flirtation with a wholesale line reshuffle (Crowder to center and Thomas to tackle), DeBord decided to play a pair of true freshmen-- Jack Jones at guard and Chance Hall at tackle. No one would mistake either for the second coming of Tony Boselli, but for true freshmen thrown into the fire at the last minute, the pair played mostly solid, error-free football.
The Vols have a bye week to heal up before facing Alabama, but it's entirely possible that one or both of the freshmen are forced back into the starting lineup against the Tide, helping to pave the way for Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara. If Hall and Jones continue to progress and play effectively, Tennessee will be able to open up the playbook and unleash Josh Dobbs on the rest of the conference schedule.
Chris Pendley - Todd Kelly, Jr.
Tennessee's pass defense stats the last couple games are just weird: 26-57 for 498 yards, or 45.6% opposing completion percentage but for 8.6 yards per attempt. That basically means either one of two things is happening on an opposing pass attempt: an incompletion or a huge play. If Tennessee can keep around their opposing completion percentage on the season (51%) and clamp down on the deep pass, it'll fall on the secondary to set up, match up, and wrap up.
I'm going with TKJr here because I trust Cam Sutton and Brian Randolph. Tennessee's been playing a fairly passive Cover 3; Sutton and Randolph are both fine, but it's that third part of the Cover 3 that's been the problem. You could flip Kelly for Emmanuel Mosley, LaDarrell McNeil, Justin Martin, or Your Other Big Dude In The Secondary and I wouldn't complain.
Once the Alabama game is over, it's not unreasonable to assume Tennessee will have a lead in every game the rest of the way. Since the passive playcalling probably isn't going away this year, the secondary needs to make sure their numbers don't end up on too many SportsCenter highlights the rest oft he way.