Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 24 Tennessee.
For a brief period of time, Tennessee was the No. 1 team in the Deadspin 25. I know, hard to believe you scumbag readers would vote such a vile program so high, but it’s true. The Volunteers bested the next closest competitor by garnering nearly 25 percent more votes through the opening 24 hours; they seemed well on their way to making their first ever top-10 appearance in the One True Poll. Unfortunately for Butch Jones’s squad, they did what they always do: choked when it mattered most. Sure, they still made the rankings, but all the potential, all the hope was dashed as soon as they threw their names in the hat, because destiny does not play favorites, not even with the reigning Champions of Life.
The Volunteers have been a confounding squad, really, ever since Phillip Fulmer got canned—they consistently cobble together top-15 recruiting classes, boast a crazed fanbase, and appear to have a coach at the helm that is a perfect fit among the SEC’s two-deep roster of weirdos with confounding haircuts. And yet, even with access to the nation’s best recruits thanks to their storied history and SEC Network money, Tennessee consistently spends its seasons, in no particular order, 1) proving it has the talent to hang with anyone and 2) defecating in their own bed sheets.
Last season, the Volunteers burst out of the gates, winning five straight games to open the season. And the wins didn’t come in blowout fashion—they required an insanely lucky bounce in overtime to down (a very good!) App State, came back from 21-0 to beat Florida, and leaned on last-minute heroics to rip out Georgia’s heart. But the thing is, as exciting as it is to watch a team repeatedly tell death to fuck off, chances are two things about such a team are true: They’re probably more talented and lucky than genuinely great, and that team’s magic will eventually dissipate. For Tennessee, that time came in Week 6. And again in Week 7. The nail in the coffin came in Week 8, when lowly South Carolina downed the Volunteers 24-21, stamping out any remaining division title dreams and spurring star running back Jalen Hurd to announce his intentions to transfer.
Hurd is an interesting case—through his first two seasons, he was a clear-cut NFL prospect, rushing for 2,187 yards and 17 touchdowns and hauling in 57 passes for 411 yards and four scores. His production dipped last year, though, as in the seven games he played, he posted just 451 rushing yards and 3 scores to pair with 81 receiving yards and two touchdowns while dealing with a rash of undisclosed injuries (per the Tennessean, Jones vaguely said he had both upper and lower body injuries; his stepdad said he had a concussion.) After the Volunteers somehow lost to the Gamecocks, Hurd called it quits and later committed to Baylor.
I realize this is a situation that requires a delicate, balanced analysis but... imagine being such a frustrating program that one of your premier offensive weapons stops giving a single shit about your team, announces his intention to transfer halfway through the season, and then agrees to sit out a year to transfer to fucking Baylor. That’s the most satisfaction Gator fans have gotten since whenever they last spent an afternoon watching ‘08 Tebow highlights.
As much of a shitshow as the Hurd ordeal was, the Volunteer offense is actually in decent shape as far as its 2017 running back situation goes. Starting quarterback Josh Dobbs and running backs Hurd and Alvin Kamara have since bid Knoxville adieu (Dobbs and Kamara are suiting up for NFL teams nowadays), but junior John Kelly is primed to fill in as the new feature back. Despite topping 10 carries just five times last season, the stout speedster broke out to establish himself as the next man up, racking up 630 yards and reaching paydirt six times. Having stability there will be a much-needed relief for whoever ends up under center.
As of Aug. 11, junior Quinten Dormaday and redshirt freshman Jarret Guarantano, who have a combined 39 thrown passes (all Dormaday’s), are battling for the quarterback spot, with Jones keeping a tight seal on which of the two he might be leaning toward for the Sept. 4 season opener. Dormaday was reportedly the favorite heading into camp, per 24/7, but Jones won’t say whether the upperclassman has the upper hand yet or not.
Whoever does get the nod will assuredly be throwing a lot of balls to receiver Jauan Jennings, the guy that fucked Georgia all the way up and finished with 40 receptions, 580 yards, and seven scores in 2016. With the incredibly efficient Josh Malone gone, Jennings will be the No. 1 option for the Volunteers; some other guys will also catch balls, but it’s unclear who will actually start or be any good. The Volunteers have sophomore Tyler Byrd, who posted 13 catches and 209 yards last year, as well as redshirt senior Josh Smith (though he’s injured at the moment) and sophomores Brandon Johnson and Marquez Callaway—the trio combined for a whopping 213 yards and two scores last year. Rookie Brandon Johnson has reportedly started to climb the depth chart, too. The reality is that there’s a decent amount of talent here, but none of it has turned up for a full season’s worth of production—you’ll be shocked to know this problem is not unique to the offense.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop had to deal with a rash of injuries in his first year at Tennessee, resulting in his group becoming the No. 1 reason the team failed to achieve anything meaningful. Heading into his second season, he has to deal with being sued for nearly a million bucks by his old team, Penn State—life’s tough that way, I guess. Personnel-wise, his 2017 defensive line and secondary will be as talented and inexperienced as pretty much every offensive Tennessee position group, as Shoop has to replace 20 combined sacks after losing ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen. Redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor and redshirt junior Jonathan Kongbo should get the job done, and it’ll help that the Volunteers linebacker core will feature a trio of seniors in Elliott Berry, Colton Jumper, and Cortez McDowell. But consistency is not always a recipe for success.
While the Tennessee offense hummed for the majority of last season, the defense sucked eggs, giving up 28.8 points per game. If that turns out to not be an aberration, then Shoop will not be long for Knoxville. Ole Butch wasn’t scared to fire John Jancek in 2015 despite the fact the Volunteer ranked 17th in the nation with 20.0 points allowed; if Shoop wants to comfortably pay off that pesky suit, the Volunteer defense had better figure out how to to turn all these dang four-star recruits into, you know, an actual defense.
Given the Volunteers enter the season with a new quarterback, receiving corps, defensive line, and secondary, one of their rare proven entities will unsurprisingly be their best shot at recreating what was at times one of the most entertaining and efficient offensive attacks in the nation. Although Hurd and Kamara are gone, the Volunteers should rest easy knowing that John Kelly will carry the yeoman’s load in 2017.
A three-star recruit out of Michigan, Kelly was never particularly expected to become this season’s feature back with Hurd and Kamara ahead of him on the depth chart. He spent his freshman year on clean-up duty, watching from the sidelines as the duo combined for over 1,900 yards. For the first part of the 2016 campaign, it appeared as though Kelly would serve in the same role, as he didn’t even register a handoff in two of the first seven games. But after Hurd’s transfer and an injury to Kamara forced him into action, Kelly proved to be even more efficient, rushing for 6.4 yards per carry and topping 80 yards four times.
At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Kelly is a balanced runner that manages to always keep his momentum headed upfield by mixing in an array of quick side-step moves that allow him to brush off defenders attempting to bring him down without wrapping up. He has inexperience behind him on the depth chart in sophomore Carlin Fils-Aime and incoming four-star recruit Ty Chandler, so barring any surprises from those two, Kelly will be expected to to handle the majority of carries this year; while that may cause concern at other position groups, here, the Volunteers actually got lucky.
With this weak-ass nonconference schedule, who knows? Tennessee, a major Power Five program, has the following list of non-SEC opponents: Georgia Tech, Southern Miss, UMass, Indiana State. (I’m aware the Golden Eagles beat an SEC team last year, but it was fucking Kentucky.) For a program that consistently talks itself up as a Contender, this slate is, well, it’s horseshit.
Pointless gripes aside, the Volunteers really don’t have a shot. While plenty of starters have logged years of practice play, there’s way too much inexperience across the board; even if the offensive newcomers prove to be decent, unless the defense gets its shit together in a very real and immediate way, which I don’t think it will, the entire conversation is moot.
Yes, of course Butch Jones is a dick. His program continues to exceed its quota for assault (domestic and sexual) and harassment cases (Jones even gets courtesy calls from the cops. How nice of them!) He reportedly called a player reporting an assault a “traitor” (he denied this) and took part in the university’s bullshit attempt to quell concerns over its general culture of victim blaming. He’s also a dunce with a bad haircut.
Sept. 4: Georgia Tech
Spet. 9: Indiana State
Sept. 16: @ Florida
Sept. 23: UMass
Sept. 30: Georgia
Oct. 14: South Carolina
Oct. 21: @ Alabama
Oct. 28: @ Kentucky
Nov. 4: Southern Miss
Nov. 11: @ Missouri
Nov. 18: LSU
Nov. 25: Vanderbilt
Dec. 2: SEC Championship Game (I kid)