As the offseason approaches, we’ll begin looking at the key questions facing each team in the league. We started this morning with Vanderbilt; now we turn our attention to Tennessee:
1. How hot is Butch Jones' seat?
Every coach asks for four years to make their mark. In that time -- a full recruiting cycle -- a coach can say confidently that the roster is full of "his guys." So Butch Jones, who enters his fifth season at Tennessee, has had time. His coveted bricks have been laid. And another nine-win season might be enough to get him fired. Another year of missing out on the SEC Championship Game might mean he’s no longer a head coach in the SEC. Finishing 3-4 down the stretch last season with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt has Jones firmly on the hot seat in 2017. Beating Nebraska in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl didn't change that. Questions will continue to persist about Jones' future at Tennessee if he can't start next season strong and follow through and win the East for the first time in a decade.
2. What does life after Joshua Dobbs look like?
Placing Tennessee’s failures at Dobbs' feet is a ridiculous notion. He didn’t ask to have his redshirt pulled in consecutive seasons to start his career. He didn’t ask for his receivers to drop passes left and right. All the guy did was score touchdowns, and lots of them. All told, he found the end zone 87 times, and that includes two receiving touchdowns. So nitpick if you must, but don’t lose sight of the bigger question: What in the world will Tennessee do without him and his 3,500-plus yards of production this past season? Do you ask redshirt freshman Sheriron Jones or true freshman Jarrett Guarantano to step in under center? Remember, you can’t lean on running backs Alvin Kamara or Jalen Hurd now that they're gone, and the team’s leading receiver, Josh Malone, has said he’ll leave school early for the NFL draft. Dobbs can’t shoulder the load anymore, and Tennessee’s offense must change without him.
3. Can Bob Shoop match the hype?
Because he didn’t last season. The former Penn State and Vanderbilt defensive coordinator was supposed to take the Vols from good to great on defense, and instead the unit took one giant step back. Now, injuries played a role, of course. But you’re looking at a defense that gave up 449 yards and just shy of 29 points per game. And it did so with arguably the best defensive end in the country in Derek Barnett, who had an incredible (and troubling) 43 percent of the team’s sacks. Next season, with Barnett off to the NFL, the production needs to be spread around more evenly. With seven starters back and a nice crop of prospects already in the system, Shoop has some pieces to work with.