Tennessee is no longer just a trendy darkhorse pick to win the SEC East. The Volunteers are the favorites to make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship in November.
The talent and experience on both sides of the ball, especially at key positions, is why Tennessee is the near consensus pick to win the division. The Vols have the most-experienced quarterback in the division in Joshua Dobbs and a workhorse back behind him in Jalen Hurd. On defense, the Vols have studs at all three levels with defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive backs Cameron Sutton and Todd Kelly Jr.
The talent is there, but it's time for this talented roster to execute and be more efficient, especially in close games.
In 2015 the Volunteers lost four games by a combined 17 points, with their largest margin of defeat a seven point overtime loss to Oklahoma. Those 17 points kept the Vols from reaching the SEC title game last year, and if the offense can't be more effective in tight games, next offseason will be once again spent wondering "what if?"
Improving on red zone efficiency at all times will be important for the Vols offense in 2016. Tennessee was 11th in the nation in red zone opportunities in 2015. That's good! However, the Vols were not great at converting those opportunities into scores.
Tennessee, who comes in at No. 12 in our CBS Sports preseason 128, ranked 71st nationally in redzone scoring percentage (83.3 percent) and 73rd in touchdown percentage (59.1 percent). Only one team that reached a Power Five conference title game last year had worse percentages -- oddly enough that was Alabama, but the Tide's defense made them the exception that proves the rule.
In late game situations, the offense's scoring woes were magnified. Tennessee was 85th in the country in fourth quarter scoring, averaging six points per fourth quarter. In the four losses, the Vols scored only 14 points (3.5 average) in the fourth quarter and only 20 total second half points.
For one, the Tennessee coaching staff has to put its faith in their quarterback. Play-calling in those four losses was extremely conservative in the fourth quarter. If Dobbs is supposed to be the best quarterback in the division, the Vols staff has to trust him to put the ball in the air and move the sticks in the fourth quarter.
In the four losses, Tennessee attempted only 18 total passes in the fourth quarter, completing 11 of them -- the most egregious example of the Vols play-calling shutting down into "don't lose" mode was against Oklahoma when Dobbs went 1 of 2 in the fourth quarter for eight yards. Jalen Hurd and the Tennessee running game are good, but they're not a dominant enough force that Tennessee can just march down the field burning clock in a late game situation by only running the ball.
That's not to say the Vols defense doesn't share some blame for late game woes, but the defense's job gets much harder to do when the offense only possesses the ball for 16 of the 60 fourth quarter minutes in their four losses.
Tennessee is the favorite this year and must embrace that status. The Volunteers can't be afraid of losing, instead they must expect winning and the play-calling, especially in close games in the fourth quarter, needs to reflect that. If they do that and execute, there ought to be a lot of orange in the Georgia Dome in early November.