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Eleven Weeks: Best Offense Since...

Georgia v Tennessee Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The closer we get to September, the more the hype builds.

Part of the conversation comes in comparing Tennessee to the competition. But having been gone so long, part of it comes in comparing Team 120 to Vol squads of past glory and previous decades.

These Vols may have a particular identity around the run game, but their strengths overall can be bigger than just Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara. Every offensive position group has an opportunity to be the best the Vols have seen in several years; the starting 11 have a chance to go down in history.

That running identity will almost certainly prevent Josh Dobbs and the Vol receivers from approaching the heights of Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Mychal Rivera in 2012. That fall Bray led the SEC in touchdowns per game and CP & Hunter played their way into the NFL Draft’s first 34 picks. The Vols led all power conference teams with just eight sacks allowed.

Under Butch Jones the Vols have struggled to find consistent success in the passing game with Justin Worley and Josh Dobbs, finishing 14th, 12th, and 10th in the SEC in yards per attempt from 2013-15. Only Pig Howard has finished in the Top 20 among SEC receivers in yards per game in Jones’ tenure. Consistency at receiver will continue to be a question until it materializes, but with experience returning everywhere and a running game drawing plenty of attention, the Vols should be set up to have their best passing season of Jones’ time in Knoxville this fall.

But 2016 should be Tennessee’s best rushing attack since...1998? 1993? 1951?

There have been a couple of individual standout seasons between our last run at the top and now, most notably Montario Hardesty’s 1,345 yards in 2009 and Travis Stephens’ school record 1,464 in 2001. In 2004 the Vols had a pair of 1,000 yard rushers in Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs Jr., and when Brent Schaeffer was healthy and in the game the Vols could be quite potent in the run game.

Yet none of those seasons were the equal of last year on paper. The Vols ran for 2,908 yards in 13 games, just missing the first 3,000 yard rushing season since the 1950’s. There are other marks beyond Team 119’s: the ‘93 Vols averaged a school record 5.9 yards per carry, the ‘51 national champion Vols 306.8 yards per game. But in terms of sheer talent in a multi-faceted backfield, you have to go back at least as far as the 1998-99 run of Tee Martin, Jamal Lewis, and Travis Henry (with a healthy dose of Travis Stephens and Shawn Bryson in 1998). That group led the Vols to a national championship and a BCS at-large bid in two years. And this one might end up being more productive. The ‘98 Vols averaged 195 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Team 119 averaged 224 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry.

If you want to get greedy, the ‘93 offense which still ranks as the highest scoring in program history and may have been Tennessee’s best overall team got 1,161 yards and 7.3 yards per carry from Charlie Garner, 537 and 6.2 from James Stewart, 217 and 7.8 from Aaron Hayden, and 199 and 5.0 from Mose Phillips. They also had the Heisman runner-up at quarterback in Heath Shuler, who ran far less than the year before but was enough of a threat to help the Vols set school records.

These are the opportunities before Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, and Alvin Kamara behind what is now a veteran offensive line. Dobbs has already rewritten the school record book for a running quarterback. Hurd needs less than 1,000 yards to set the career rushing record at UT in three years, and could have an excellent shot to get Travis Stephens’ single-season record, especially if the Vols get to Atlanta and earn an extra game. Kamara has an opportunity to play his way up the NFL Draft board after averaging 7.3 yards per touch last season.

If these ingredients all blend together, Tennessee improves its downfield passing game, and the Vols stay healthy? Twenty years from now we may look back and talk about the best offense since 2016.