Tennessee is quietly setting itself up as the SEC East favorite in 2016

Why is nobody talking about Tennessee?

The Volunteers became an afterthought after a 3-4 start. It didn’t matter that all four losses were by less than a touchdown. Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades. And it didn’t matter that two of the four losses were to teams that made the College Football Playoff. The fact remained that they lost those games and were no longer nationally relevant.

Quietly, though, this Tennessee team started winning again. They blew out Kentucky on the road. They hung on at home against South Carolina. The defense stepped up in wins over North Texas and Missouri, and then it was the offense that put on a show against a solid Vanderbilt defense in the regular season finale.

Five straight wins to finish the season. The only SEC team who has a better winning streak is the conference champion, Alabama.

Now granted, not one of those five wins came against a team that was bowl eligible. And critics will point to that when assessing this team. But still, this was Tennessee’s first eight-win season since 2007. That’s progress for head coach Butch Jones and for this program.

As a reward, the Vols are headed to Tampa on New Year’s Day to play No. 13 Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. It’s their second consecutive January bowl game and their first New Year’s Day bowl since the 2007 season.

"No question, it shows what we are building here at Tennessee,” Jones said. “To be playing in two January bowl games in Florida and now obviously going to the Outback Bowl, it's just another illustration of the things that are being built here at Tennessee.

“It is very, very important and it's a reward for our team.”

How important is the bowl game? It might not matter much for this season, aside from what goes in the history books. But more than anything, a win could serve as a spring board for next year.

Just look at last year. Tennessee finished 6-6, but the Vols were one of the most talked about teams in the SEC after their blowout win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. And that momentum carried over to this season where they were being talked up as a darkhorse contender to win the conference.

This team has late momentum again, and win or lose the bowl game, they’re still going to be talked about as a contender next year. In fact, Tennessee might be the SEC East favorite in 2016.

Crazy, right?

Not if you look at what the Vols have coming back. The offense, led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs, is expected to return nine starters. The defense only loses three seniors, though certain juniors like Cameron Sutton or Jalen Reeves-Maybin might leave school early. But it’s not incomprehensible to think this might be the most talented team in the East next year.

Sure, Florida will be good again next year, but that defense could take a serious hit, especially considering some of the underclassmen that might declare early. And Georgia has plenty of talent on its roster every year, but Kirby Smart is a new coach with little experience. Plus, Georgia -- just like Florida -- has quarterback issues that need to be resolved.

Meanwhile, Tennessee has its quarterback and potentially 17 starters returning.

This was the plan all along. Build the program “brick by brick,” as Jones says, and continue to make progress. From five wins to six wins to now eight wins, the Vols have improved each year. What’s next? Ten wins? Eleven wins? A conference championship?

Just don’t sleep on Tennessee in 2016.