Earlier this week we compared Butch Jones and Hugh Freeze and talked about the slippery nature of great seasons. If Tennessee is in fact going to have one of those unanimously great years and not something like the good-but-could-have-been-great season we saw last year, there are a handful of components that seem likely to be part of the story.
Sure, someone could come out of nowhere and make a leap (Jason Croom at tight end? Rashaan Gaulden getting on the field?). And with so many returning starters, there are things Team 119 did well we can safely assume Team 120 can follow up on. But if Tennessee is going to the top of the mountain in 2016, the success or failure of those last few steps will likely hinge on some or all of the following:
Josh Dobbs improves as a downfield passer
Dobbs' biggest area of improvement from 2014 to 2015 was in throwing fewer interceptions. His numbers in completion percentage and yards per attempt were slightly down year-to-year, though playing a full season in 2015 meant playing more defenses with a pulse than he saw at the end of the 2014 season.
Dobbs' 3-to-1 TD-INT ratio was bested in the SEC only by Dak Prescott (29 to 5!), Brandon Allen (30-8), and surprisingly Greyson Lambert who threw 12 touchdowns to just a pair of interceptions while throwing it just over 20 times per game. But with his other numbers failing to improve, there's an argument here for Dobbs' drop in interceptions being at least in part a function of a more conservative approach in the passing game under Mike DeBord.
Tennessee's deep ball numbers were largely unchanged from 2014 (which also includes some Justin Worley) to 2015. The Vols converted just 13 pass plays of 30+ yards in 2014 and just 16 in 2015, both failing to crack the Top 75 nationally. But the intermediate passing game had a drop-off last season. In 2014 the Vols completed 122 passes of 10+ yards (46th nationally) and 44 passes of 20+ yards (48th nationally). Last year the Vols completed just 101 passes of 10+ yards (82nd nationally) and 36 passes of 20+ yards (76th nationally).
Dobbs doesn't have to turn into Peyton Manning or even Erik Ainge to lead the Vols to the promised land in 2016. But he will have to improve his downfield passing efficiency, as the best defenses on the schedule will continue to force the Vols to do something other than run right at them. If a respectable intermediate passing game manifests itself, Tennessee's offense could become truly unstoppable.
Consistency emerges at wide receiver
Want a better intermediate passing game? Better find more go-to targets. Von Pearson became the closest thing to that guy at the end of last season, following in the slot receiver footsteps of Pig Howard. Pearson ended up leading the Vols in targets, receptions, and yards last season despite catching just three passes for 57 yards in the first four games.
His 55 targets are gone, and another 75 went to Hurd and Kamara last season. This leaves Josh Malone and Josh Smith as the presumed first and second options, who combined for 54 receptions on 96 targets for 712 yards last season. The names behind them are still more potential than fact. Preston Williams has been among the leaders in chatter so far this spring; his 158 yards last year came on just seven catches, narrowly eclipsing Ethan Wolf as the team's leader in yards per target. Jauan Jennings continues to play on the offensive side of the ball as Tennessee looks for a new option in the slot.
As is the case at quarterback, I don't think the Vols need one of these guys to turn into Peerless Price to win a championship this year. But Dobbs needs targets he can rely on, and if the Vols spend the first two months of the season rotating between leading receivers again, their chance to win a title may have already passed them by before someone emerges out of this talented group.
Someone helps take pressure off Derek Barnett
Nine of Barnett's ten sacks last season came in the season's final eight games. Tennessee's defense turned in one of its most memorable performances of the year against Alabama in large part because other defensive linemen stepped up and got the quarterback on the ground. Barnett's 10 sacks led UT defensive linemen by a healthy margin, with Corey Vereen's 3.5 coming in a distant second. Whether it's Vereen, Kyle Phillips, Jonathan Kongbo or someone else, the Vols need to give opposing offenses a reason to focus their efforts somewhere other than on Barnett.
Last year eight teams averaged 3+ sacks per game. Three of them made the playoff, another made the New Year's Six, and another was coached by Bob Shoop. Alabama had nine different players record at least two sacks last year; Clemson and Penn State had seven. Tennessee had just five.
It's one thing for the Vols to be feared up front because of one player. It's another to have a legitimate pass rush coming from multiple players, even more to have enough quality depth at defensive end to keep motors running in the fourth quarter so Baker Mayfield doesn't get away. Championship teams have great pass rushes. If the Vols are going to win something this fall, they'll need to have more than just one great pass rusher.
What are your biggest keys for Tennessee to go from good to great in 2016?