After four consecutive seven-loss seasons, Butch Jones has this program tending upward. Seemingly entrenched in mediocrity, Jones has brought energy back to Knoxville, and it starts with the success he's had in recruiting. The Volunteers reeled in two top-five classes in 2014 and 2015, the former a 35-commit class, and we've seen these recruits begin to develop with eight wins this season.
So really, how good is Tennessee?
Well, they seemingly come in hot, having won five consecutive games. But those five opponents include the absolute basement of the SEC as well as one of the worst FBS programs, combining for a 7-37 record. In fact, Tennessee is 1-4 against bowl eligible opponents and 0-3 against the current Top 25. That lone win came against Georgia when the Bulldogs lost star running back Nick Chubb on the very first play of the game.
What they lack in quality wins, though, the Volunteers make up for in excellent losses, including a heartbreaker to Oklahoma in double overtime, a missed game-winning field goal attempt that sailed wide left against Florida, another missed field goal against Arkansas, and a fourth quarter lead against Alabama with 2:30 left in the game. The Volunteers have four losses by a total of seventeen points, reminiscent of Northwestern's 2012 campaign. Ultimately, Tennessee is tied for second-place in the SEC East, its highest finish since 2009. The program has improved each year under Butch Jones and Neyland Stadium has returned as a college football hotbed.
1. The offense is a bit one dimensional, but that dimension is really good
This is a well rounded Tennessee offense and it's led by junior quarterback and aerospace engineer Joshua Dobbs. The special thing about Dobbs is his size. He's 6-foot-3 and actually provides a great template for Clayton Thorson to build upon. Dobbs makes smart decisions, he protects the football, and he has the ability to throw on the move as well tuck it and run. However, he has been inconsistent at times throwing the football, and what Tennessee lacks is a potent passing attack. Dobbs has still accounted for 24 touchdowns this year to just five interceptions and should be a great matchup for Northwestern's prolific defense.
Dobbs himself is well-rounded, but the Volunteers have more than just him on the ground. Sophomore running back Jalen Hurd is a bruising 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and runs downhill on defenses. He has the speed to get to the outside paired with the vision to run in-between the tackles. He also knows how to finish runs. Hurd finished fourth in the SEC in rushing behind Heisman winner Derrick Henry and Heisman contender Leonard Fournette.
His change of pace back is the shifty Alvin Kamara, who averages nearly seven yards per carry. However, a balanced offense is crucial for Tennessee's success. In the four Volunteer losses, Dobbs threw for an average of only 152 yards. He's hampered by his own inconsistency and Tennessee's lack of a true number one wide receiver, which is ironic due to its claiming of the title "Wide Receiver U." The Vols do, however, have depth: six players have at least 20 receptions and two touchdowns, so Dobbs might not have a true number one, but he has plenty of options.
2. Tennessee's defense is talented but beatable
The Volunteers' defense had some great moments this season -- holding Alabama to just 19 points, for example -- but also some bad ones -- giving up 31 points to Georgia. It comes in about average in both passing and rushing defense, yielding 217 yards though the air and 153 yards on the ground per game. In comparison, Northwestern's defense averages 193 yards passing and 118 yards rushing.
Anchoring the Volunteers are their two second-team All-SEC players: sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett and junior outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Barnett led the team in sacks with nine and was third on the team in total tackles with 61. His great season is no fluke as Barnett had 72 total tackles and 10 sacks in his freshman campaign. He's a great pass rusher with a quick first step but also contributes in stopping the run, and the Wildcats will likely be directing extra attention his way to protect Clayton Thorson's blind side.
Reeves-Maybin is one of the most aggressive outside linebackers in the country. His two best of the games of the season came against Oklahoma and Alabama, so the guy shows up in big games. He can rush the passer but perhaps his biggest skill is his play recognition. He blew up multiple screen passes against the Sooners en-route to 21 total tackles. He finished the season with 99 total tackles, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. Look for him all over the field.
3. The Vols' special teams units are incredible
The Volunteers come in at No. 4 in special teams efficiency, a statistic based on the point contributions of each unit to the team's scoring margin, on a per-play basis. The values are adjusted for strength of schedule and down-weighted for "garbage time" based on win probability. On the defensive side, Tennessee is No. 10 in the nation in average yards per punt with 45.4.
In the return game, the Volunteers are led by punt returner Cameron Sutton and kick returner Evan Berry. Sutton averages 18.7 yards per punt return, and has taken two back to the house, while Kamara, used only occasionally, has also taken one back. Berry averages an astounding 38.3 yards per kick return, and has run three kickoffs back for touchdowns. Northwestern's return coverage has been solid all season -- giving up one kick return touchdown against Michigan -- and it will need to step up against Tennessee's electric return game.
If Tennessee had one struggle in special teams, it was field goals. Tennessee's sophomore kicker Aaron Medley was 20 for 29 in attempts, including six misses in their four losses. Medley's struggles could become advantageous for an opportunistic Northwestern team.