The Tennessee Volunteers are entering the 2015 season with some of the highest expectations the program has received in well over half a decade. Many analysts are predicting the Vols to win the SEC East or at least challenge the Georgia Bulldogs for the division crown, and those who aren't predicting those kinds of results are at least saying the Vols should win 8 or 9 games.
The Vols certainly have the talent to achieve these goals, and the fact that the rest of the SEC East is "down" this year only strengthens that notion. But two things could potentially stand between Tennessee and these achievements, and those two things go hand-in-hand.
Thanks to a major roster overhaul in recruiting, Tennessee finally has a starting eleven on both sides of the ball that should be able to compete with all 12 teams on their schedule in 2015. But the cost of having to prune and replenish the roster comes at depth, and the Vols are still woefully thin at certain positions heading into head coach Butch Jones's third season. Units like the defensive line, linebacker, and safety have enough depth to survive a brutal SEC schedule. But most of the other positions on Tennessee's roster are either thin or extremely inexperienced and can little afford to lose players to injury.
Take running back for example. Sophomore Jalen Hurd and JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara will spearhead Tennessee's rushing attack this season, and those two have the potential to be a dynamic duo in 2015. But the talent pool takes a significant drop after those two. Yes, Joe Young, John Kelly, and Ralph David Abernathy IV have looked promising during fall camp, but their talent doesn't rival Hurd's and Kamara's by any means, and none of them are ready to shoulder the kind of load that would be asked of them if either of those two go down.
The tight end position is in even worse shape, though. No other unit has suffered more attrition since the end of the 2014 season than at tight end for the Vols, as three players (Daniel Helm, Kyle Oliver, and A.J. Branisel) have left the program before the start of the 2015 season. Ethan Wolf and Alex Ellis are the only two true scholarship tight ends left in the unit, and converted linebackers Neiko Creamer and Jakob Johnson are the main reserves at this point. While both Creamer and Johnson could develop into solid collegiate tight ends, a team never wants to have to depend on converted linebackers as their primary backups at an offensive position.
Quarterback is yet another position where the Vols are set at starter but lack proven depth. Joshua Dobbs has the potential to be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC and in the country this season, but his back ups are all true freshmen. Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones, and walk-on Zac Jancek have never played a down of college football. Similarly, the offensive line has little experienced depth beyond the starters, as freshmen and sophomores almost exclusively comprise the second string.
And to top it off, Tennessee's injury history doesn't bode well for the team's thin depth.
The Vols' wide receiving corps was decimated by injuries last season, as Jason Croom, Marquez North, Von Pearson, Josh Smith, and Josh Malone all either missed time or dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season, greatly hampering their production. The Vols cannot afford for as many receivers to go down with injuries this year, as significant injuries to even just one or two players in the six-man rotation would hurt the group substantially. If Josh Dobbs goes down for an extended period of time, the Vols are likely in deep trouble and would have to turn to a freshman quarterback to lead the offense. Even losing Hurd or Kamara at running back or Wolf at tight end would be devastating to the offense. The Vols have already lost offensive guard Marcus Jackson for the year, and losing any other linemen for a long period of time would be a detriment to all phases of the offense.
When considering Tennessee's talent purely in a void, free of injury, youth, or inexperience, the Vols clearly have one of the more talented rosters in the SEC, especially in the SEC East. But looking beyond the starters and considering how banged up players have been in the past, the clear image of the Vols' potential becomes a little muddied. Depth is young, and some positions still lack enough bodies to sustain any type of serious injury to the starter or backup.
The Vols have the talent and coaching staff in place to compete for the SEC East for the first time in nearly a decade, but just a small handful of injuries could spell disaster for the Vols this season. Lack of depth and injuries will be the only thing that keeps the Vols from reaching their potential in 2015.