Chasing Alabama: Tennessee Volunteers

Can Joshua Dobbs help Tennessee reel in Alabama in the SEC? We'll find out soon enough. Wade Payne/AP

For the previous two seasons -- and honestly, for the majority of several seasons before that -- the rest of the SEC was chasing Alabama.

Everyone will open the 2016 season as the Crimson Tide’s pursuers, again, although only a few teams are legitimate threats to catch up to Nick Saban’s juggernaut. Over the next several days, we’ll take a look at the Tide’s fellow SEC contenders and their cases for overtaking Alabama in the upcoming season.

We continue the series now by looking at a Tennessee Volunteers program that has the pieces in place to claim its first SEC East title in nearly a decade.

How they can beat Alabama: Before a team can claim an SEC title -- by beating Alabama or whichever team wins the SEC West -- it has to make it to Atlanta. In perusing Tennessee’s roster, this looks like a team that can get there. The Volunteers are one of the SEC’s few teams without quarterback uncertainty. Joshua Dobbs is entrenched as the starter after a solid junior season. They have most of the offensive line back and two of the SEC’s top running backs in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. The Vols are dynamic on special teams and return star power on defense, as well, in Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. Plus they play a front-loaded schedule with two of their toughest games (Florida and Alabama) at home. If they are still in the race once the calendar turns to November, the Vols likely will win the division for the first time since 2007.

What’s standing in their way: These days, Tennessee looks like its own worst enemy. Between ugly lawsuit claims and players getting arrested, the Vols might stumble before they make it out of the starting block. But if they can keep things together, they look like the Eastern Division favorite. The crucial stretch on the schedule will come between Sept. 24 and Oct. 15. Tennessee will host Florida, visit Georgia and Texas A&M and then host Alabama, all in consecutive weeks before the Oct. 22 open date. Tennessee might need more productivity out of its passing game to win all four of those games. Dobbs has been a solid player, but he has been hit-and-miss as a passer. Coupling an improved passing skill set with his ability as a runner would make the Vols’ senior quarterback awfully difficult to stop.

X factor: Butch Jones pulled off a major coup this offseason when he lured Bob Shoop back to the SEC. Shoop did an impressive job as defensive coordinator under James Franklin at Vanderbilt before following him to Penn State for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Now he’s back to replace John Jancek with the Vols. Shoop’s Nittany Lions ranked 14th nationally in total defense (324.5 ypg) last season after ranking second in the category in 2014, and they tied for 26th in scoring defense (21.8 ppg) last year. Now instead of dealing with roster limitations, he will return most of the defensive two-deep on a team that expects to contend. His presence might even be enough to push the Vols over the top.