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Tennessee Football Preview: Why The Volunteers Can Win The National Title

Editor's note: This is the first in a 15-part series in which we preview college football's top teams. We'll be counting down from 15 to one, with the final team, released on Sept. 3 - the day college football starts - serving as our national title pick. 

15. Tennessee Volunteers

Is there a program in the country with a greater sense of optimism for the future than Tennessee? The Volunteers, a once dominant team, had fallen on rough times in recent seasons. Thanks to Butch Jones, who has been recruiting as well as anyone not named Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, Tennessee appears to be on the verge of a breakthrough. 

The Volunteers have a stud at quarterback and young talent all over the field. They begin practice today and they're very excited in Knoxville, Tenn. 

">August 4, 2015

Let the preview begin. 

Where They're At In The Rankings

  • USA TODAY Coaches' Poll - No. 25
  • ESPN FPI - No. 13
  • Las Vegas odds - No. 14

The Schedule

Sept. 5 - vs. Bowling Green
Sept. 12. - vs. No. 19 Oklahoma 
Sept. 19 - vs. Western Carolina 
Sept. 26 - at Florida 
Oct. 3. - vs. No. 20 Arkansas
Oct. 10 - vs. No. 9 Georgia
Oct. 24 - at No. 3 Alabama
Oct. 31 - at Kentucky 
Nov. 7 - vs. South Carolina 
Nov. 14 - vs. North Texas
Nov. 21 - at No. 23 Missouri 
Nov. 28 - vs. Vanderbilt 

Key Games

Sept. 12 vs. Oklahoma

This is the big non-conference game for the Volunteers and they get it at home. Last season, Tennessee played Oklahoma tough in Norman, Okla., for a couple quarters before falling, 34-10. It should be different this time around. Joshua Dobbs is now the man at quarterback; he didn't play in last year's contest. If Tennessee's defense can get to the Sooners' Trevor Knight and limit the mistakes on offense, this could be a big victory. 

Oct. 10 vs. Georgia 

A home bout with the Bulldogs in early October very well may serve as the de-facto SEC East Division championship game. Georgia is the favorite to win the division, per the preseason poll, but the Volunteers were chosen second and are a trendy dark horse pick to win it. Limiting Georgia's rushing attack will be the key for the Volunteers, who possess a lot of young talent on the defensive line. Neyland Stadium will be at its peak for this one. 

Oct. 24 at Alabama

Tennessee hasn't beaten Alabama since 2006. The Crimson Tide's win streak in the Third Saturday In October likely won't be changing this season. But the Volunteers' chances for a win in this rivalry are better this year than they've been in a long time. Good, mobile quarterbacks have given Nick Saban's defense a lot of trouble in the past; Dobbs fits that description. If Tennessee can force a turnover or two and get a big game from the quarterback, something special could happen in Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

Key Players

Joshua Dobbs, junior quarterback

Good quarterback play is not something that the SEC is expected to have an abundance of this fall. Dobbs is perhaps the best the conference has to offer, though, and he has a chance to be one of the country's best in 2015. He took over starting duties for the Volunteers in Game 8 last season, ending the year with more than 1,200 passing yards and nine touchdowns, along with 489 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Accuracy and decision making are two areas where he can improve. 

Jalen Hurd, sophomore running back

A good running back is necessary for success in every conference, but especially the physical SEC. Hurd showed great promise in 2014, rushing for just shy of 900 yards. He's a physical specimen - 6-foot-3, 230 pounds - and used his strength to average nearly five yards a carry last fall. When he's at his best - like he was in their bowl game, rushing for 122 yards on 16 carries against Iowa - he's nearly as good as it gets at the position. He needs to be at that level more consistently this season. 

Kahlil McKenzie, freshman defensive tackle

The strength of Tennessee's 2015 team might be its defensive line. The strength of that unit might be five-star freshman defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, who is expected by most to play - and make an impact - right away. If he can live up to the hype, Jones' squad could possess one of the country's top d-lines. McKenzie appears to be ready to go, too. 

The kid is special.

Why They Can Win The National Title

OK, it's a bit of a stretch to talk Tennessee football and national championship in the same sentence in 2015. Most likely, the Volunteers are a year away from seriously contending in the SEC and beyond. 

But...they are in the weaker SEC East. Their biggest non-conference game (Oklahoma) is at home and it is winnable. Their biggest SEC East game (Georgia) is at home and it is winnable. There's really only game on the schedule that is looked at as a very probable loss (at Alabama). 

If Dobbs can play like an All-SEC quarterback, get good protection from his offensive line and have his young defense mature and live up to its potential, this is a very scary team. Getting through the season at 11-1 is possible. Beating the SEC West champion is probably unlikely but it's also possible. And if you do both of those, you're in the College Football Playoff. And if last year taught us anything, you don't bet against a team with a ton of momentum, good quarterback play and a fast defense (all of which Tennessee could have come January). 

Watch out for the Volunteers this fall. 

Up tomorrow: Oklahoma