Tennessee football is looking to just get to a bowl game in Jeremy Pruitt’s second season. But is nine wins a real possibility for the Volunteers?
It started last week on the ESPN Football Power Index. The analytics made Tennessee football the favorite in nine games for the 2019 season, which included all four non-conference games, three winnable home games against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, South Carolina Gamecocks and Vanderbilt Commodores, and a road game against the Kentucky Wildcats.
The shocker, though, was that the FPI favored the Vols ever so slightly to beat the Missouri Tigers to get to 9-3. This was just one index, though, so we have to take things more from an overall perspective when it comes to 2019.
Well, Phil Steele added to that overall perspective. On 104.5 The Zone’s 3HL show in Nashville Wednesday, Steele, who has been a college football predictor for over a decade now, also said nine wins is a strong possibility for Tennessee football.
An analytics expert himself, Steele’s model is proven, and he’s been very accurate in calling the Vols this century. His baseline for Rocky Top is eight wins, and that would obviously mean nine wins could be on the horizon. So how is this possible?
Well, it is true that at this point UT should win all four non-conference games. That’s an extra win over last year, as the BYU Cougars at home should be much easier than the West Virginia Mountaineers at a neutral site.
Meanwhile, they barely lost to South Carolina last year, and they get S.C. at home this season while also likely being much improved. That should be another win. Then there’s Kentucky. They dominated the Wildcats in Knoxville last year, and while the game is in Lexington this year, UK should take a significant step back while UT improves. So they should win again.
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That’s their path to six wins. Mississippi State at home remains a tossup since the Vols should be better and MSU loses talent, but MSU does enter its second year under Joe Moorhead. Still, after beating the Auburn Tigers on the road last year, MSU at home is a great chance for another big win.
Finally, there’s Vanderbilt. They have won the last three games over the Vols, but they are traveling to Knoxville this year and don’t have Kyle Shurmur. So, again, this is a clear path to eight wins if you look at this schedule, the projection of the teams and how the Vols played last year.
The sticking point is Missouri. Sure, the Tigers lost Drew Lock and may not be bowl eligible. But that ban could be overturned, the Vols have to travel to Mizzou, and Kelly Bryant should immediately offset the loss of Lock. Also, the team is now more familiar playing in a pro-style entering its second year with Derek Dooley as offensive coordinator.
Taking all that into account, it’s hard to see how the Vols could beat the Tigers. I would venture to say they have a better chance of upsetting the Florida Gators on the road or somehow catching the Georgia Bulldogs off-guard at home, and both of those are highly unlikely scenarios.
But what’s clear about all of this is the outlook for Tennessee football’s season has gone from making a bowl game to having eight wins as a baseline and 9-3 as a possibility. That’s pretty impressive coming from analytical experts, and it’s time to take those goals seriously. If Jeremy Pruitt does that, he’ll have the Vols on an amazing track for recruiting.