JOE BIDDLE: Vols are sleepers

UT Vols Football Sports Generic
(Graphic: WKRN)

Tennessee football coach Butch Jones finally admitted that last year’s team, which was favored to win the SEC East, fell short of those expectations.

Since then he has steadfastly said he did not think it was a disappointment.

Thousands of disappointed Vols fans would disagree with the head coach.

It’s why his name is being bantered about as being on the hot seat. I think key injuries, especially on the defense, led to the Vols 4-loss season.

This is a new year and Jones is optimistic, but then he is always optimistic.

The SEC media types projected the Vols to finish third in the SEC East. They have Georgia winning the East with Florida coming in second.

But the annual preseason media predictions have often missed the mark.

I’m going out on a limb and giving the Vols a chance to win the SEC East. They’re a sleeper in my mind. I’m not all that impressed with Georgia or Florida. I think it’s going to be a three team race and why not the Vols?

Granted they will miss quarterback Joshua Dobbs. He got better as last year went on. Now they are trying to decide between two quarterbacks with limited experience.

Junior Quinten Dormady is a strong-armed quarterback and he will have a better offensive line than a year ago. They need to find a running back to spell starter junior John Kelly. It could be freshman Ty Chandler from MBA.

Dormady will compete with redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. He is more of a dual type quarterback. He doesn’t have the arm strength that Dormady has, but he is a better runner than Dormady.

It should be stiff competition and a decision from Jones could linger until the season opener against Georgia Tech. If that position proves to be capable, the Vols offense has a surrounding cast with wide receiver Jauan Jennings, a Mid-State junior. Redshirt senior Josh Smith, sophomore Tyler Byrd and sophomore Brandon Johnson all need to fill in the gap.

Tight end Ethan Wolf is a senior as is senior Jakob Johnson.

The two-deep defensive roster has playmakers with junior Kyle Phillips coming back from the injury list of last year. Defensive tackle Reginald Kahil McKenzie Jr. is being counted on for a solid season. Transfer senior cornerback Shaq Wiggins, junior middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. and sophomore free safety Nigel Warrior need to have big seasons.

I looked at their schedule and broke it down in three categories. A win. A loss. A swing game.

The season opener with Georgia Tech in Atlanta’s new stadium is a swing game, as the ACC is trying to claim it is the top conference in college football, not the SEC, which has ruled for years. Facing a triple option Georgia Tech team out of the gate is a challenge for the Vols defense.

Slam dunk wins are Indiana State and UMass at Neyland. Southern Miss at Neyland is also a must win game.

The other swing games are Georgia at Neyland, at Florida, at Kentucky, at Missouri and Vanderbilt in Neyland.

I see six wins, two losses to Alabama and LSU. They need to get a split in those games and find a way to win four swing games.

Jones has recruited enough players to be a factor in the SEC East race. He needs to make key calls when the heat is on in meaningful games.

This season is going to separate the men from the boys on the Hill.

Joe Biddle is a WKRN.com sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at joebiddle11@gmail.com.