If you read our preview magazine, you've seen the stats. If we consider message-sending-wins to include wins as a modest-to-significant underdog, blowout wins as a slight underdog, or wins over a top 25 team, pretty much every championship coach in the last fifteen years has gotten one in his first year at a new school. If you haven't read the preview magazine, I'm not going to rehash it here, so you'll have to take it on faith or look it up yourself. Some have been shocking victories as overlooked underdogs of 20+ points, some have been blowout wins in rivalry games, and some have just been narrow victories in anticipated matchups between highly ranked programs, but they all get them.
Thus, the evidence suggests that if Butch Jones is going to be a championship coach, he'll coach the Vols to a big win in 2013. The rest of the season might be up and down, as first seasons often are--Les Miles stumbled to 4-8 in his first year at Oklahoma State, and Nick Saban was just 7-6 with a loss to Louisiana-Monroe in his first year at Alabama--but generally big-time coaches manage at least one big-time win.
So if Jones is going to pull off a major upset victory this season, where is it coming from? Here, we'll consider all five games in which Tennessee expects to be a sizable underdog, ranking them from most likely to least likely to be that big upset win.
1. October 19th vs. South Carolina.
Preseason betting line: Not on the board. However, South Carolina is -11 at Arkansas the week before and -7 at Missouri the week after. Comparing the respect Tennessee seems to be getting to that of Arkansas and Missouri, we can make a guess of South Carolina -8.
Odds of upset by betting line (see Phil Steele's research on the subject here): 2.8 to 1.
Why Tennessee will pull the upset: South Carolina seems to have broken through into the upper echelon of the SEC, but they still haven't been elite at putting away bad teams. They lost to Kentucky in 2010, they lost to Auburn in 2011, and they narrowly escaped Vanderbilt and Tennessee and were tied in the 4th quarter against Wofford in 2012. All three of Derek Dooley's teams, who weren't competitive against much of anybody, were competitive against South Carolina.
What's more, South Carolina loses a lot more than you think from last year's top ten team. Two starters on the defensive line are gone, as well as all five linebackers with more than five tackles in 2012. That's a lot to replace, even when you do have Jadeveon Clowney on your team, and Tennessee's powerful offensive line is a tough matchup for a thin front seven. And a 2012 defense that struggled late in the season and late in games indicates that the Gamecocks may not have the depth to make up for those losses. On offense, they lose three of the top four targets in the passing game, and while they return four of five starters from their offensive line, it was a line that was genuinely bad at generating push on standard downs or in short yardage situations.
The biggest weapon on their team--Clowney--is one that Tennessee is uniquely capable of mitigating (although probably not stopping), and the rest of the roster doesn't scream "top ten." And the Tennessee game doesn't fall in an ideal place for the Gamecocks: they will be in the second week of a rare three-game SEC road trip, while the Vols will be coming off a bye.
Why Tennessee won't pull the upset: Steve Spurrier is a very good coach, and South Carolina still has more talent. It pretty much comes down to these. If you need more, there are a lot of players in South Carolina's run game who were underclassmen last year. Three positions on the line were held my freshmen or sophomores, and Mike Davis was a freshman back-up running back with a 4-star rating. As Tennessee saw in 2012, a year can make a big difference in those areas. Additionally, Connor Shaw is just the type of mobile quarterback who gives the Vols trouble, and Spurrier has really never had trouble fielding a solid defense in Columbia.
My take on the upset chances: 2 to 1. Tennessee has a lot going for them in this game, both regarding the situationand the matchups. It would still be an upset, but it's the most likely on the board by a significant margin.
2. October 5th vs Georgia.
Preseason betting line: Georgia -12.
Odds of upset by betting line: 3.8 to 1.
Why Tennessee will pull the upset: Georgia's defense was up-and-down last year--especially struggling in power situations, which the Vols' offense should do well this year--and they're bound to be worse this year. Possibly much worse. They lose four of their top six defensive linemen from last year. They lose four of their top five linebackers from last year. They lose four of their top five defensive backs from last year. And that's from a defense that allowed 30 points four times last season. This year could get really ugly on the defensive side of the ball.
Add in a brutal September which pits the Bulldogs against Clemson, South Carolina, and LSU, and Georgia could be limping into Knoxville on October 5th. And on top of that, there's the Mark Richt factor: he seems to have one game a year where Georgia completely and inexplicably falls apart. A road game--just one week after LSU--against a team that's easy to overlook just may be the place we see it this year.
Why Tennessee won't pull the upset: Georgia's offense is ridiculous. They had what was arguably the best offense in the country last year, and they return ten starters from it. Do you see Tennessee's defense stopping that? Do you see Tennessee's offense being far enough along in October to keep up in a shootout? Yeah, I don't either.
My take on the upset chances: 4 to 1. I came into this article fully prepared to buck the lines and call Georgia a tougher game than Florida, but the situational factors are just too strong. All else being equal, I think Tennessee has a better shot at beating a defensively-oriented team than an offensively-oriented team, but Georgia is going to be physically and emotionally beaten down after the month of September, and the chances are higher than normal that they don't bring their "A" game against a Tennessee team that's been at historic lows for the last two years.
3. September 21 at Florida.
Preseason betting line: Florida -14.5.
Odds of upset by betting line: 6.7 to 1. It's worth noting here that there's a big jump between lines of 14 and 14.5 in Steele's grouping, so the current line is just a half-point from the 3.8 to 1 category. Last month, the preseason line was 12 and firmly in 3.8 to 1 territory. Obviously, it's impossible to tell where it will be by kickoff.
Why Tennessee will pull the upset: Florida lived on the edge last year, beating both Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette by one score and Bowling Green and Vanderbilt by two. And their defense may not be equipped to play with such little margin for error this year, as they've lost a ton of talent down the middle. Both starting safeties, both starting tackles, and the starting Mike linebacker are gone this year.
On offense, they could easily be a mess again. An atrocious passing game will have to improve without three of the top four targets from last year, and a solid running game loses its workhorse back. The offensive line loses its left tackle and left guard and wasn't very good in power situations last year anyways. The Gators got their yards on the ground with misdirection early and wearing you down late. When they just tried to line up and run down your throat, it didn't work very well. Tennessee fell for the misdirection last year, but the coaching has changed, and there is the hope that the Vols defense will show more discipline while continuing to be solid up the middle.
Finally, I fully expect Tennessee to go into Gainesville believing they can win, for probably the first time since 2005. Don't underestimate how big of a difference that can make.
Why Tennessee won't pull off the upset: Florida may lose a bit on defense, but they're replacing all those guys with a gaggle of four and five star recruits. There may be a dropoff when stars leave for the NFL, or they may just find new stars.
Additionally, a Florida offense that wasn't very good last year still took Tennessee to the woodshed. While the coaching has changed, the personnel hasn't, and the Vols don't have enough speed on the edges.
What's more, the game just doesn't fall in a good place on Tennessee's schedule. The previous week, they fly to Oregon, so it'll be the second of two straight long trips to face tough opponents. It's early in the season, but there may be some fatigue creeping in already. And it's early in the season, which means the quarterback situation is likely still unsettled.
My take on the upset chances: 4.5 to 1. I expect the history of being defeated before they step on the field to be gone under Butch Jones, who seems to have a strength as a motivator. Take that out, and I see Tennessee in the 10.5 to 14 range underdog instead of the 14.5 to 17. But with the placement in the schedule, the Vols aren't in one of the better situations for an underdog in that range.
4. September 14th at Oregon.
Preseason betting line: Oregon -23.5.
Odds of upset by betting line: 13.8 to 1.
Why Tennessee will pull off the upset: The master is gone, and Oregon may be looking at a regression to pre-Kelly levels. Stanford showed last year that they may be vulnerable to a team with lots of size in the trenches, which Tennessee has. Butch Jones has Tennessee running up-tempo offense, so the Vols should be somewhat prepared for what they'll face in Eugene.
Why Tennessee won't pull off the upset: With the continuity in the coaching staff, any slide Oregon might expect will almost certainly be gradual, not immediate. The last time the Ducks lost to an unranked team was 2009. They haven't even let an unranked team hang around in the 4th quarter since 2010. Tennessee does not have anything approaching the speed to hang with Oregon's offense, and Oregon's defense isn't exactly as vulnerable as Georgia's. It's a testament to Alabama that this isn't far and away the toughest game on the schedule.
My take on the upset chances: 30 to 1. Those are the odds that Clemson wins the national championship this year. That sounds about right.
5. October 26th at Alabama.
Preseason betting line: Alabama -27.
Odds of upset by betting line: 24 to 1.
Why Tennessee will pull off the upset: Ummmm. . . anything can happen in a rivalry game? Alabama will look past the Vols to their bye week? Seriously, Tennessee's defense should be fairly solid against the power game (especially with Alabama losing three all-American offensive linemen), which Alabama likes to play. But Alabama doesn't have to play the power game, and the Vols have no answer for Amari Cooper.
Why Tennessee won't pull off the upset: Talent, coaching, homefield advantage. That pretty much sums it up, right?
My take on the upset chances: 45 to 1. Those are the odds that Miami wins the national championship.
Of course, there may be other opportunities to make statements, depending on how the season shapes up. Currently, Tennessee looks like a modest (3-7 point) favorite over Auburn, a slight (0-3 point) favorite over Vanderbilt, and a modest underdog to Missouri. But it is certainly within the realm of possibility for any of those teams to pull some upsets of their own and come into the Tennessee game as solid favorites. Right now, only Missouri looks to be favored against the Vols, and if they remain a non-negligible favorite by game-time, they will surely be Tennessee's best shot at an upset this year. But a lot can happen between now and November, and I see a situation with Tennessee favored or the game as a pk as just as likely as Missouri being favored by more than a field goal. So they have not been featured in this post.
So what are the chances Butch Jones pulls an upset this season over one of the five top ten teams on the schedule? If you look at the preseason lines and the odds based on them, there is a 55% chance that Tennessee comes away with a big upset win. If you look at my own projections, it's a slightly more optimistic 59% chance. One thing's for certain: it could very easily go either way. And which way it goes will shape the narrative of Jones' first year on Rocky Top.