A talented offense returns to Knoxville this fall, and that's a big reason why the Tennessee Volunteers are favored on the college football odds to win the SEC East Division.
You have to go all the way back to the very first BCS Championship following the 1998 season. Peyton Manning was a rookie quarterback in the NFL, but his departure from Knoxville didn't leave Tennessee in a bad spot as it turned out since the Volunteers turned in a perfect 13-0 campaign and their first national title in 31 years.
A little more than 17 years have passed since that championship win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl, and Manning has since hung up his cleats after leading the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl win this past February. Tennessee played in three more SEC Championships since then, losing them all, but has not come close to returning to the glory of that 1998 season.
Is 2016 when that all ends? The NCAA football odds suggest it just might with the Volunteers carrying a +1600 price to go all the way, ironically the same odds as Florida State.
Their odds are even better to make it to the SEC Championship, the Vols going off at even money to win the East Division, Florida (+175) and Georgia (+250) close behind. Butch Jones' squad has a win total pegged at 9½, the 'under' carrying a little extra juice.
Offense Has Chance To Be Special
It's obviously going to take an 'over' 9½ win total to reach the College Football Playoff. Indeed, it's most likely going to take a 12-1 record or better to make it, with one of those victories coming in the conference championship. And that means senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is going to have to push the offense to a higher level than the numbers turned in a year ago.
The good news is Dobbs is part of a very experienced group returning on the offensive side, the Vols bringing back 17 starters from 2015, including nine on offense. Dobbs put up decent all-around stats last season, passing for 15 scores and running for 11 more. He's also got junior tailback Jalen Hurd back in the fold after rushing for nearly 1,300 yards, along with backup Alvin Kamara who had nearly another 700 on the ground.
They'll have an experienced wall in front of them with four linemen back, plus two of the top three receivers. The keys to the attack could be a pair of sophomore wideouts, Jauan Jennings and Preston Williams, being able to stretch the field with their speed.
The defensive front could turn out to be the most talented in the SEC. Led by end Derek Barnett (10 sacks) and sophomore tackle Kahill McKenzie, the Volunteers recorded 30 sacks in 2015 and the squad also welcomes back leading tackler, senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks will be huge since the secondary has a little mystery to it entering 2016.
Will Vols Have To Beat 'Bama Twice?
The nonconference schedule is one of the weakest for an FBS team, so it's imperative for Tennessee (+1400 at GTBets to win National Championship) to run through that part of the slate with a perfect 4-0 record if there's any hope of making it to the CFP. The most formidable opponent will be Virginia Tech in Week 2, the Volunteers and Hokies meeting at Bristol Motor Speedway about halfway between Knoxville and Blacksburg.
The other three contests on the non-con schedule are all in Knoxville against Appalachian State (Wk 1), Ohio (Wk 3) and Tennessee Tech (Wk 9).
Their SEC opener comes the last Saturday of September at home vs. Florida, and that's followed by a trip to Georgia the next week. Those two games are huge as far as the SEC East pans out. Tennessee will finish off October with road games at Texas A&M and South Carolina sandwiched around a matchup with Alabama (+650 at BetOnline) in Knoxville on October 15.
Assuming the sports books are correct, that meeting with the Crimson Tide will be the first of two, the second coming in the SEC Championship. I do like the Vols reaching that game as my college football pick to win the SEC East, but a conference title or National Championship? No, can't say I like Tennessee to make either a reality.