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Tennessee Controls Its Own Destiny by Managing Its Own Risks

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Tennessee v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

So does everyone in Week One, of course.

But, to use our favorite off-season phrase for the n-th time, for the first time in 10+ years, the Vols should be masters of their own fate far longer than September.

Almost everyone is picking Tennessee to win the SEC East. That includes every national publication on shelves at the moment. But more than this, when the other hand is offered the conversation is less about what Georgia or Florida could do, and more about a perception of what Tennessee might not be able to do.

We talked about this on Sports 180 on Friday. If you’re picking Georgia or Florida to win the SEC East, the conversation probably starts like this:

  • “I won’t believe Tennessee can beat Florida until I see it.”
  • “I don’t believe Tennessee can win in Athens the very next week.”

The arguments for other contenders are really intangible arguments about the favorite.

I’ve been trying to talk myself and others into the idea that Tennessee is simply better than Florida for the last few years. Now it suddenly represents the majority opinion. I can’t find anyone outside of Gainesville who will suggest the Gators are a better or more talented team than Tennessee right now. The gap was negligible last season and things still went spectacularly wrong for the Vols in the end, but the distance between us and them was far greater for most of Florida’s 11 consecutive victories.

Meanwhile the Vols and Dawgs have played five consecutive one possession games, with Tennessee finally breaking through to victory last fall. Georgia returns much of its talent from last season and should not be taken lightly, especially at home. But Tennessee returns most of its talent and the quarterback who shredded the Dawgs last year, the biggest difference between UT and UGA right now.

Maybe Georgia has a great quarterback on its roster too. Maybe Kirby Smart will make the difference. But the maybes are far more numerous in Athens than Knoxville, and right now no one is suggesting Georgia is the outright better option.

Alabama is. But the Vols could navigate a loss to the Crimson Tide and still control their own destiny to Atlanta, where they could play their way into the College Football Playoff. This is the season’s biggest realistic goal: win the East and get to Atlanta with a chance to make the playoff.

Tennessee will need luck to pull it off, but this time only in the same way every champion needs a little luck. It’s not the flagrant kind of luck needed to pull off a number of upsets we've been trying to talk ourselves into for the last few years. The Vols simply need to take care of their own business.

This is especially fascinating to me as it relates to the ways Butch Jones and Mike DeBord call plays. After the loss to Arkansas last season, we tried to pinpoint Tennessee’s offensive identity:

But the longer we watch this team, the more I believe Team 119's identity is less about running the football and more about minimizing risk. This is, in part, how the Vols gave away leads against Oklahoma and Florida. It's not an outright terrible strategy; it's been good enough to give Tennessee a chance to win every game, and could continue to do so. But it is a limited strategy, perhaps by design, and puts a definite ceiling on this offense.

But maybe this was the plan. Not the receivers part, but the taking no chances downfield and relying on the ground game part. Maybe they looked at what they had on the offensive line, had uncertainties about what Dobbs could do downfield, and then looked at Dobbs' feet, Hurd, Kamara, and a once-healthy defense, and said, "We can win this year playing this way." Don't take many chances in the passing game. Use tempo and grind away. Win field position, turnovers, and special teams.

And the Vols are doing all of those things. And they have almost been enough to be undefeated. Almost.

Tennessee’s intermediate passing game would improve against Georgia and Alabama, and the Vols caught fire down the stretch. But the Vols also had no problem trotting out the risk management policy when they knew they had a definite advantage (most specifically at Missouri) and winning ugly.

2016’s ugly should be better looking than 2015’s. But when you feel like you’re the best team on the field 11 out of 12 Saturdays, and that best comes via a powerful running game and a veteran defense? I would imagine Butch and DeBord are asking themselves exactly how many risks they’ll have to take this fall.