Success in college football comes and goes in cycles. Although some cycles last longer than others, the only yearly guarantee is that there are no guarantees.
Tennessee ranks inside the top ten on the all-time Division I FBS wins list, but the Rocky Top faithful have learned lessons about complacency and sweeping changes the hard way. Former head coach Philip Fulmer brought the Vols back to prominence again in the 1990s, but the program has failed to win more than seven games since 2007.
Now the times are changing, a change that can only be interpreted as a good thing for the 13-time SEC Champions.
“When you’re at the University of Tennessee, you always have high expectations. But this year is different for each and every player in our football program,” said head coach Butch Jones. “That’s what you want. You want the expectations to be exceptionally high.”
As Jones enters his third year as head coach at Tennessee, he’s not exaggerating about the level of expectations heaped on his team. The Vols went 7-6 and capped off 2014 with a dominant victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, a season good enough to reinvigorate enthusiasm within and around the program.
“I really think our players really learned how to win last year,” Jones said. “They learned how to prepare. They learned how to take care of their bodies. They learned excellence in the class room. They learned everything that it takes to prepare for an opponent week in, week out.”
The cast of players Jones is referring to is largely unchanged from one year ago, led by a surprising leader who emerged in 2014.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs rose from third on the depth chart to take over the reins in October against Alabama. By season’s end, Dobbs put up over 1200 yards and nine touchdowns. The season wasn’t without struggles, but Dobbs has learned a lot in his time at Tennessee and felt ready for the role even before the rest of the conference had taken note of his ability.
“It was definitely a process,” Dobbs said. “I feel like I did a great job of taking advantage of the reps I got during practice and treated them as game reps. And then the effort and the time I put into film study, seeing what I need to improve on and working on those in practice. I feel like all of those valuable reps really helped me once I got my opportunity.”
Dobbs won’t have to carry the offense on his own. At wide receiver, Marquez North returns from a shoulder injury that limited him to just 30 catches last year. He’ll be flanked by familiar face Pig Howard, who led the Vols with 618 yards in 2014.
At running back, the backfield duo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara figures to be explosive. Hurd provides power on the ground, while Kamara compliments his skillset by bringing speed and agility to the rushing attack.
Now packing experienced weapons in his arsenal, the expectations for Dobbs as an individual are elevated as well. Still, the junior doesn’t feel like 2015 is any different.
“The only difference I guess is the label ‘he’s the starting quarterback.’ I feel like since I’ve gotten on campus, I’ve acted as if I was the starter. I carry myself that way and my teammates have felt that same sentiment. I always used to push them and I continue to push them now,” Dobbs said. “I don’t feel like there’s been a change, there’s just been more hunger to win and more hunger to succeed.”
Dobbs will be aided by a defense that, similar to the offense, returns the majority of its best players from the previous campaign. Middle linebacker AJ Johnson is gone, but losing one leader is offset by an improved defensive line, a consistent lineup of outside linebackers, and a secondary featuring Cameron Sutton and JUCO transfer Justin Martin that belongs in the top tier of the SEC.
Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt combined for 21 sacks last year. Maggitt expects more of the same—if not even better production—from himself and his teammates in the months to come.
“Coming off of a pretty good season and having a great offseason conditioning, everything has taken a step up. The expectation and standard has risen,” Maggitt said.
Last season’s leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin returns to the team as well, raising the bar even higher. Maggitt knows he can’t control the hopes of fans and analysts, but he knows he can play a huge role in the ultimate result.
“That’s the expectations of other people. What I can control is leading the team. We came to Tennessee for that reason. That’s something we’re not blind to. We know it’s being talked about. Our job is just getting ready for the season and taking it one game at a time.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Tennessee’s turn into the 21st century began with a bang but segued into a whimper with significant struggles as of late. But with most major playmakers back on both sides of the ball in 2015 and a committed head coach who isn’t looking to go anywhere, the Vols appear to be back on track to cycle towards the top of the SEC East once again.