Facing the West Virginia Mountaineers is a tough way for Tennessee football to start the Jeremy Pruitt era. But it’s a huge opportunity for the Volunteers.
With good reason, fans and analysts alike are skeptical if Tennessee football can reach a bowl game Jeremy Pruitt’s first season. The consensus is the Vols should reach one, but it will be along the lines of a 6-6 or 7-5 record.
However, if they can somehow upset the West Virginia Mountaineers in their season-opener, the entire outlook for the year changes. Yes, this is a tall task. And we’re not saying it’s going to happen. If it does, though, look out.
Right now, Tennessee football is a 10-point underdog to WVU on a neutral site. Beating them alone would bring a ton of momentum to Rocky Top. How much better can it be for a first-year head coach when he wins his season opener as a double-digit underdog against a Top 25 team?
But adding to the momentum, the schedule sets up extremely nicely for the Vols after that. Their next two games are against the East Tennessee State Buccaneers and the UTEP Miners. One is an FCS program that hasn’t had a winning season yet since its revival in 2015, and the other is coming off an 0-12 season. Both teams have new head coaches as well.
Simply put, each game is a cakewalk for the Vols, and should they beat West Virginia, they will almost certainly be 3-0. For a team just looking to make a bowl game, we have to acknowledge that 3-0 is an amazing start. But it goes further than that.
Tennessee football’s fourth game is at home against the Florida Gators. I said back in July that it makes no sense to put UF so far ahead of the Vols in 2018 projections. Both teams had four wins last year, they both have a new head coach who is installing the 3-4 defense and a schematic change on offense, and Florida needed a Hail Mary to beat UT in The Swamp last year.
Meanwhile, if recruiting rankings are anything, Tennessee has more talent everywhere than Florida. And the adjustment to the spread is more difficult in a first year, which the Gators are doing under Dan Mullen, than the adjustment to the pro-style, which the Vols are doing under Pruitt and Tyson Helton. Oh, let’s add the fact that the game is in Knoxville as well.
All signs point to the fact that the Vols should actually be favorites to beat the Gators. Even if they lose to West Virginia, it’s very feasible that they beat Florida and move to 3-1 on the season. However, if they beat West Virginia, things change even more. At that point, the Vols will have all the momentum getting ready to face Florida, and their chances of winning increase dramatically.
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A win there moves the team to 4-0. All of a sudden, Tennessee football heads into Athens to face the Georgia Bulldogs 4-0, likely in the Top 25, and with a ton of momentum. As you can see, this dramatically alters the course of the season for the Vols.
With that record, the goal changes from just trying to make a bowl game to potentially finishing in the Top 25. Now, the Vols will almost certainly lose their next three games to Georgia, the Auburn Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide to come back down to Earth. But getting to 4-0 still makes eight or nine wins a strong possibility.
Also, don’t forget that Kirby Smart’s team is incredibly young. If Tennessee gets to 4-0 and heads to Athens, although Georgia is clearly the better team, there could definitely be some magic that happens in the game.
The focus in the big picture of Vol Nation still has to be on making a bowl game at this moment. And they will probably lose to West Virginia. But a win Saturday sets up a potentially very strong start to the season for Tennessee football. Should that happen, Vols fans will be able to totally change course on what they expect from this team. Momentum will be at a all-time high.