Somehow, someway, we’re exactly one week away from the start of the college football season. One week!!! And after spending the past few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: the tue national championship contenders. Therefore, go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Clemso -- oh wait, Dabo Swinney’s club is actually really good. Still, over the next two weeks, FOXSports.com will break down all the contenders for the National Championship and give you a couple reasons why they can win it all. After starting with Ohio State Monday, hitting the Washington Huskies on Tuesday and discussing the Houston Cougars on Wednesday, it’s time to move to the epicenter of college football -- the SEC. But instead of the usual song and dance about why ‘Bama or LSU can win the title, it’s time to move East and discuss the Tennessee Volunteers. That’s right, business is booming for Butch Jones as he enters year four in Knoxville. Here are five reasons his Vols can win the title.
Getty ImagesMichael Chang
They finally have the pieces to match up on defense
When you rip through four coaches in a six-year stretch like the Vols did from 2008 to 2013, it isn’t just hard to build continuity -- it’s also hard to build depth. And while Tennessee was able to compensate in some places during those lean years (specifically at wide receiver with guys like Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson), they simply couldn’t keep up on the defensive side of the ball. Now, mercifully, the Vols finally have SEC-caliber talent all across their defense, including a handful of guys who could end up as high-level NFL Draft picks. It starts up front with defensive end Derek Barnett, who has tallied 20 sacks in his first two years on campus. Behind him are linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and corner Cameron Sutton, both of whom could have gone pro last spring but elected to return for one final season on Rocky Top. Add in guys like Darrin Kirkland Jr. and safety Todd Kelly Jr., and the Vols have front-line talent across the entire unit. Plus, with backups like former five-stars Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle on the defensive line, they have depth, too. This defense is loaded in a way it hasn’t been in years.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAChristopher Hanewinckel
They have the best 1-2 running back punch in the country
Next week, FOXSports.com will roll out our list of the “Top 100 players in college football.” It’s a fun list, compiled by a handful of colleagues and myself, but in the course of the rankings, I nearly threw a fit when I found out where Vols’ running back Jalen Hurd landed. I think the guy is one of the 3-4 best running backs in the sport, a physical freak who would be capable of putting up 2,000 yards if he were given the rock enough. Just one problem: It’s hard to rank him too high because he’s got a darn good backup in Alvin Kamara, a former Alabama signee who rushed for nearly 700 yards last year and is good enough to start at most schools. While I’m angry Hurd isn’t higher on our list, the Tennessee coaching staff has to be thrilled that it has two veterans it can count on -- a pair that combined for 19 TDS and just under 2,000 yards last year. Hurd was great all year (with nearly 1,300 yards) but was especially great late in the season, with more than 550 yards in the final five games. Individually, Hurd and Kamara are two of the best running backs in the sport. Collectively (and with all due respect to Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon at Oklahoma) they’re the best duo in the country.
They’ve got the most experienced quarterback in the SEC
The SEC hasn’t exactly been the “Manning Passing Academy” when it’s come to elite quarterback play over the past few years, but even by its admittedly average standard, this year’s crop seems especially weak. This might be the best reason to pick the Vols to compete for a national championship: They’ve got experience like no one else in the conference with Joshua Dobbs under center. Dobbs' numbers don’t blow you off the page, but in the case of the senior that’s kind of a good thing. No, he’s not a genetic freak like DeShaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes, but he doesn’t try to play like one, instead taking what the defense gives him and never making the huge mistake that costs his team big time. His calm, cool style of play has resulted in a lot of wins in his 1 1/2 years as a starter. Dobbs won four of five games after being named starter in 2014 (helping Tennessee get bowl eligible in the process), before going 9-4 as the starter last year. That record isn’t spotless, but all four losses were by a touchdown or less and all four games were more winnable. Dobbs isn’t flashy, but he’s by far the most accomplished quarterback in the SEC. He also might be the biggest reason the Vols can win a title this season.
Getty ImagesMike Carlson
The SEC East is down this year
Granted, the SEC East has seemed to be “down” every year for the past half-decade, but doesn’t it feel especially down in 2016? Missouri is breaking in a new head coach. South Carolina might have the worst offense in major college football. Georgia will likely be starting a true freshman at quarterback, with a first-year, first-time head coach leading the charge. Florida is down to its third different starting quarterback since the start of last year -- a guy who once left Oregon State because he was told by the staff he wasn’t good enough. Talk about the division of misfit football programs, am I right? It also means that while Tennessee’s cross-division games are tough (at Texas A&M, Alabama at home), it's really hard to find a single loss in its East slate. Sometimes, it’s not just about how good you are, but how good everyone else around you is. And the Vols picked a helluva year to put it all together. Speaking of which …
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
Doesn’t it just “feel” like Tennessee’s year?
Look, I know this isn’t “technically” a reason, but when you think about UT in the big picture, doesn’t it just feel that way? That after all the turmoil of the past decade, this is finally Tennessee’s “time.” After all, this was a program that went through four coaches in six seasons -- and all the change that comes with it, from coaching turnover, to scheme changes, to transfers, lost recruits and an overall dearth of depth that led to two straight years with zero Tennessee players drafted by the NFL. But what is the NFL’s loss is now the Vols’ gain. Butch Jones has stabilized this program, stocked it with talent (thanks to top-10 recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015) and has slowly built it, from five wins in year one, to barely bowl eligible the year after, to a nine-win club that was arguably the hottest team in the country down the stretch. The stability is there, the talent and depth are there, the division is down, and the schedule (with Florida and Alabama at home) is in the Vols' favor. Vols fans have been waiting a long time for this kind of perfect storm -- for the right coach and the right players and the right circumstances -- and it finally feels like we’re there. After all the embarrassment of the past decade -- the Phillip Fulmer firing, the (brief) Lane Kiffin era and the everything-that-could-go-wrong-did Derek Dooley years -- it’s finally Tennessee’s time. The Vols won't compete just for an SEC crown in 2016; they can end up as the best team in college football.
Aaron Torres covers college football for Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or e-mail at ATorres00@gmail.com.