After three years of rebuilding and many more taking lumps during a four-coach decade that saw some of the darkest days in Tennessee football history, the Volunteers should be the aggressor in 2016.
With 17 returning starters, a slew of talented playmakers on offense and defense and a run-oriented system with experienced players up and down the depth chart, it could be a big season for UT.
Catapulting off a 9-4 season that included six consecutive victories to end the season and a 45-6 exclamation point domination of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, expectations are high. But with an offseason that has included tons of negative off-the-field headlines, can the Vols avoid the distractions?
Today, spring practice kicks off on coach Butch Jones' fourth season in Knoxville. How focused the players are in the next couple of months may go a long way in showing whether they'll be affected by the ongoing Title IX civil suit that—according to the Associated Press, via the News-Sentinel—doesn't look to be going away anytime soon.
"There's a lot of distractions outside, a lot of misrepresentations going on outside that we can't control," senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs recently told GoVols247's Wes Rucker. "We can't read into that. We can't get bothered by that. We just have to focus on what we can control, and get better this winter, get better this offseason and prepare for spring ball."
All that said, Tennessee looks stout on the field. And, for the first time in several years, the Vols' schedule doesn't look so daunting. There's no Oregon or Oklahoma looming out of conference. Instead, UT gets a transitioning Virginia Tech in the "Battle at Bristol" early in the season.
Also, Alabama and Florida are at home, Georgia likely will be breaking in a new quarterback and coach, South Carolina and Missouri have new coaches and UT's West draw, Texas A&M, had all kinds of troubles last year.
Let's rank the Vols' toughest games in the upcoming '16 season.