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How Tennessee makes a New Year's Six bowl

If it were up to the Tennessee fans, the 2015 season would start tomorrow.

That's what happens when you put together top-5 recruiting classes in back-to-back years. There hasn't been this much buzz surrounding Tennessee's football program in a decade, and with personnel upgrades across the board, the Vols have the look of a team poised to make some real noise in what will be Butch Jones' third season as coach.

The concentration of young talent on Tennessee's team is impressive, good enough that making the jump from seven wins to a New Year's Six bowl game isn't that farfetched.
 

[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs

AP Photo/Richard ShiroJoshua Dobbs returns to head up a young Tennessee team brimming with potential.

The Vols will need a few breaks along the way, but they have playmakers at the skill positions on offense, a returning quarterback in Joshua Dobbs that added a new dimension when he entered the lineup a year ago, and a front seven on defense that is brimming with potential.

Tennessee's receiving corps has size, depth and speed. The Vols just need to stay healthy there, and they should give a lot of teams serious matchup problems. Running back Jalen Hurd returns after leading the team with 1,120 all-purpose yards as a true freshman, and he'll get a backfield complement in junior college transfer Alvin Kamara, a former four-star prospect who started his career at Alabama.

The Vols' defense made huge strides last season after being carved apart in Jones' first season. It helped to get Curt Maggitt back from injury and add freshman defensive end Derek Barnett to the mix. They combined for 35.5 tackles for loss, including 21 sacks, and gave the Vols the kind of pass-rushing threat they didn't have the year before.

Maggitt elected to return for his senior season, and Barnett has just scratched the surface of how good he can be. What's more, the Vols are bringing in a pair of heralded tackle prospects, including 327-pound Kahlil McKenzie, as well as two more highly rated pass-rushers in Kyle Phillips and Andrew Butcher.

Throw in returning starters Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker and Cameron Sutton at cornerback, both of whom have All-SEC potential, and Tennessee's defense has a chance to be as good as it's been in some time.

The Vols play five of their first six games in the state of Tennessee, which includes Oklahoma, Arkansas and Georgia in Neyland Stadium. If they're sitting there at 6-0 (or even 5-1) heading to Alabama on Oct. 24, the month of November on Rocky Top could be one to remember.

What could go wrong

It remains to be seen how the Vols, still lacking in experience, handle the hype. With so much expected of this team, if they lose one early, are they resilient enough to recover and get back to the grind in the rugged SEC?

The Oklahoma game the second week of the season is massive, especially with the trip to Florida looming two weeks later. The Gators have owned the Vols and won 10 straight in the series. Two losses in September could send things spiraling in a hurry.

Dobbs' ability to make things happen with his legs helped open up the offense last season. He also helped an offensive line that had struggled to protect the passer up until that point.

If the Vols are going to make a legitimate run at a New Year's Six bowl in 2015, Dobbs needs to become a more consistent passer, and the offensive line needs to take a major step forward.

The Vols allowed an SEC-worst 43 sacks last season. That number has to go down.

Even with the two hotshot recruiting classes, Tennessee might still be a year away. So predicting a 10-win season when the Vols haven't won more than seven in a season since 2007 is probably a bit presumptuous.

But, then, it's been a while since the Vols have gone into a season with a roster that looks as good as the one they will have at their disposal in 2015.

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