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10 Questions for 2015 #1: Progress & Potential

How big will Tennessee's next step be?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks and a wake up.

This is the part where it gets completely off the rails. (I wrote this before Rashaan Gaulden's injury was reported, which will rightfully dampen the mood temporarily...but not permanently.)  It's been that way here all week, as glass-half-full becomes glass-all-full and we start thinking about what it might actually be like to get what we asked for on Christmas morning.

Tennessee is going to take a step this fall.  Failure to do so would be failure in general; barring a catastrophic injury situation if the Vols are 6-6 at the end of the regular season again, something went significantly wrong.  The step is the expectation, from Butch Jones on down.  It's the distance from Point A to Point B we're less sure about.

Tennessee is 40-47 in the last seven years, tied with Western Michigan for 79th in winning percentage during that span, better than only Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the SEC.  8-4 would be the best regular season since 2007.  Even 7-5 would be the best regular season since 2009.

Eight wins would be tangible progress.  And the biggest problem with being happy with progress is potential.

In SB Nation's 128-team power rankings, Bill Connelly put the Vols 18th in the nation, joining the majority who put the Vols somewhere in the back third of their preseason Top 25s.  The Vols were picked to finish second in the SEC East at Media Days.  None of these folks, as far as we know, were required to drink the Kool-Aid.

And the East feels vulnerable.  Georgia has answers almost everywhere except quarterback.  Florida is starting over.  The Vols have bested South Carolina two years in a row.  And the two-time champs from Missouri still somehow struggle to gain respect among their brethren.  The division could actually be easier to win this year than next year (a point raised in the comments of SB Nation's Georgia preview).

Tennessee is young.  The Vols should start only six seniors, and that's if LaDarrell McNeil continues to hold off Todd Kelly, Jr. at safety.  Two more of those seniors are on the offensive line, already the team's biggest on-field question mark.  Next year is the on-paper arrival date, when the Vols will be trying to win with upperclassmen, a few sophomores, and freshmen can go back to having to be Jamal Lewis or Eric Berry to stand out.  But Tennessee looks and feels so tantalizingly close to arrival right now, and we've been gone so long...

Eight wins would be tangible progress.  But potential?  This team can win the SEC East.  I typed it and you read it with a straight face.  This team will have a real chance to win every Saturday for the first time in seven years.  And the scary thing is, we're not even sure of the ceiling on a couple of our best players.  Not just the freshmen like Kahlil McKenzie.  I would argue Tennessee's single best player is Derek Barnett.  He's a true sophomore.  Jalen Hurd is in that conversation too.  We've seen only a glimpse of Marquez North healthy.  There's upside all over the place.

We come back around to the question, "How do you measure a successful season?"  And it's difficult to put a hard and fast number on it.  The Vols could go 9-3 and win the SEC East, or 10-2 and miss Atlanta.  Both would be successful, but in different ways.  There's 8-4 where the Vols stumble early but get better as the season goes along, and there's 8-4 where Tennessee starts 4-0 and we all start using the word playoff for the first time before a tougher back half gets the best of the Vols.  The bar can rise as the season goes along, and it can then get so high we forget to appreciate progress.

But more often than not, and hopefully without question after seven years of suffering, you know success when you see it.  When you feel it.  And taking a step forward should give us plenty of chances to feel the feels this fall.

Every season tells a story.  We know this one is going forward.  The fun part is finding out exactly how far.

Go Vols.