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Where Will The Vols Be Ranked in 2016?

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Way too early and way too much fun.

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The final AP rankings will follow the College Football Playoff Championship, won by the Crimson Tide over Clemson in an entertaining affair in the desert.  There will be some conversation about where the Vols finish in the final poll of this year after being unranked in the final regular season AP and Coaches' polls but sliding in at #23 in the CFP poll.  Tennessee's beat down of Top 15 Northwestern should get them ranked easily, but how far will they climb? (The AM Update:  22nd).

But really, at this point Tennessee fans will be even more interested to see where the Vols will land in the numerous "way too early" 2016 Top 25s soon to populate your news feed.

Your mileage will vary with these polls, as some will be more interested than others in taking it as seriously as one can in January.  And sure, the Vols should be loaded next season and ready to compete for championships.  But I wouldn't take a poll seriously if it ranked the Vols, say, third.  (Not yet, anyway.)

Here are a list of teams that almost certainly will be ranked ahead of Tennessee in the 2016 preseason AP poll.  To be clear, this is not to say these are the only teams that will be ranked ahead of the Vols eight months from now.  These are just the sure things.

  • Alabama: As expected.
  • Clemson: The only way Clemson won't be next year's preseason #1 is if voters decide to give it to the defending champs.  Sixteen starters return including Deshaun Watson.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners get seven starters back on offense, including Baker Mayfield and Samaje Perine.  The defenses loses some of its biggest names in Erik Striker and Zack Sanchez, but still brings back the interior line and 3/4 of the secondary.  Oklahoma hasn't fared well recently when much has been expected of them, making the playoff from a #19 preseason start this year.  But if they're considered the third best team of 2015, they may also start as the third best team of 2016.
  • Ohio State:  The Buckeye depth chart should just say "NFL Draft".  But despite returning just three starters on either side of the ball, Urban Meyer's 50-4 record in Columbus and their continued recruiting success should be more than enough to get the Buckeyes in the preseason Top 10.
  • Notre Dame: Two good options at quarterback and, thanks to a ton of injuries in 2015, plenty of experience returning despite a number of NFL defections.  Like most of the names on this list, Notre Dame will also have a name recognition value which exceeds Tennessee's and won't give the Vols any extra subconscious bump in head-to-head comparisons.
  • Florida State: Eleven starters back on offense.  Word.
  • Michigan: The Wolverines are basically Tennessee:  long-suffering traditional program coming off huge bowl win looking to return to championships after a decade-plus absence with a million starters coming back.  They also have a more famous coach.
There are several others you can make an argument for being ranked ahead of Tennessee, and I'd be willing to listen to all of them.  But I think Tennessee can represent itself well in any of those arguments as well.

So that's seven sure things, which means to me the highest I'd take Tennessee seriously in a preseason poll is eight.  A couple notes from recent history:  the Vols were ranked 25th in preseason this year, the first time they made the initial poll since being ranked 18th in 2008.  The year before is the last time the Vols were preseason Top 15 at #15.
Tennessee's last preseason Top 10 ranking came in 2005, when the Vols were ranked third.  Before that you have to go back to the program's golden era, when the Vols were preseason Top 10 seven of eight years from 1995-2002.

Where would you put the Vols in your way way way way too early Top 25?