With SEC Media Days now underway, all the talk around the upcoming 2015 season is finally shifting to the actual expectations on the field rather than what fans should expect the expectations to be. Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Butch Jones will address the media Tuesday afternoon, and he will likely face a barrage of questions concerning these expectations for his team.
National media and fans alike have been pumping up the hype for the 2015 Vols, and with good reason. For the first time in over half a decade, the Vols finally appear to have the talent and coaching staff in place to challenge for the SEC East crown. Sure, the 2012 team had plenty of anticipation around them, but fans still quelled their excitement due to their doubt of head coach Derek Dooley. The 2009 team was a large question mark before the season even after Lane Kiffin injected some excitement into the fanbase.
No, the 2015 Vols are different than any Tennessee team in the last seven years. Vol fans can feel the anticipation building like a storm beneath them, and the Big Orange fanbase is ready to burst.
But what are realistic expectations for the 2015 edition of the Vols? Some analysts are predicting the Vols to land atop the SEC East while others are projecting Tennessee to finish third or worst in the East. Predictions are all over the board for the Vols this season, and this article will give you the best and worst realistic expectations for the 2015 Tennessee Volunteers.
Let's begin with the bad news.
The absolute worst thing that could happen to the Vols this season would be to sustain injuries at quarterback, running back, and along the offensive line. An injury or two in the secondary would hurt as well, but the depth on defense as a whole is much deeper than on offense at this point. Losing quarterback Joshua Dobbs or either Jalen Hurd or Alvin Kamara at running back for any significant time would be devastating to this team. And depth at offensive line is still not where it needs to be, so an injury there could derail a lot of plans on the offense in 2015.
Assume that one or a couple of the players mentioned above suffers some sort of injury that keeps them out for several games at a time. Depending on when that injury takes place, the stretch of games without those key players could prove fatal to Tennessee's SEC East hopes.
Even if the Vols remain relatively injury free, they could still be slow to develop chemistry or otherwise mesh as an entire team. The worst case scenario involves losses to essentially all the big-time opponents on Tennessee's schedule, such as Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri. Losing to South Carolina would even be in the realm of possibility under these conditions.
With that being said, the Vols finally simply have too much talent to fall back down to a 5-7 squad unless they are absolutely decimated by injuries or have a Sal Sunseri-esque drop in play on either side of the ball. At the worst, the Vols should still finish 6-6 or 7-5. But merely making a bowl game is no longer the goal at Tennessee, and Jones and his staff would feel the pressure regardless of injuries if this happens.
Keep in mind that these scenarios are realistic expectations. The actual best-case scenario would, of course, be winning the National Championship after going undefeated. But unless some miracle happens this season, those appear to be merely fanciful wishes for the Vols in 2015.
However, the best-case scenario isn't necessarily too far off from that. If the Vols can stay mostly healthy this season and perform to their greatest potential on most occasions, then a 10-2 season is certainly within reach. In fact, an 11-1 record at the end of the regular season may not be unrealistic if the Vols perform to their peak potential this year.
If Tennessee has the kind of offensive season many think possible, and if the defense takes another leap forward with the talent they have on roster currently, then the only loss the Vols may sustain in 2015 would be to Alabama. The Vols could win that game, but that single game will still be the most difficult match on Tennessee's 2015 schedule.
Regardless, a 10-2 season is definitely at the high-end of the spectrum for the Vols this year. Even 11-1 isn't totally out of the question if everything goes Tennessee's way. Either record would likely place the Vols atop the SEC East and playing for the SEC Championship in Atlanta. Regardless of the outcome of the championship game, the Vols should place into a New Year's Six bowl with the kind of performance in the best-case scenario for them. An 11-1 season and an SEC Championship would put them in the Playoffs, but that's much less likely.
As usual, where Tennessee will actually end up is likely somewhere in between these two scenarios. An 8 or 9 win season appears very likely for the Vols this season, and it would be the first time since 2007 that the Vols have eclipsed 7 wins in a single season. Tennessee's schedule provides a number of pitfalls that will likely prevent them from amassing a lengthy winning streak of more than 5 or 6 wins, but that doesn't mean Tennessee won't have success in 2015.
The Vols should finally be a true competitor in the SEC East this season, and even a 9-3 Vols squad could finish on top of the East depending on who those three losses come against. For the first time in many years, the Vols could finally be relevant in a national perspective, and this season will go a long way in defining Butch Jones's legacy as Tennessee's head coach.