Earlier this week, 5Dimes--an offshore sportsbook that is usually among the first to release lines in the offseason--released their college football win totals for the 2015 season. For the law-abiding United States residents among us, CBSSports was kind enough to post the win totals for all 128 teams. And after an offseason of seeing the Vols hyped as a top 25 team and real contender for the SEC East crown, their outlook was not quite so rosy for Tennessee: the over/under for regular season wins is set at 7.5.
Granted, that 7.5 is juiced towards the over, meaning that hypothetical $14 bet on Tennessee winning eight or more games would pay out just $10, whereas a hypothetical $10 bet on Tennessee winning seven or fewer would pay out $10. So the sportsbooks, insofar as 5Dimes is representative, see Tennessee as closer to an eight-win team than a seven-win team. But throughout the offseason, Tennessee has seen its name mentioned more often with Georgia than with Florida and South Carolina, and that trend is reversed here. The Vols' 7.5 win projection is well below Georgia's over/under of 9, but it is dead even with Florida and Missouri's 7.5 projections, albeit juiced differently, and just a half-game clear of South Carolina's projection of 7 regular season wins.
And it's hard to explain that with schedule either. Yes, Tennessee plays Oklahoma in non-conference, but is Tennessee's trio of Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arkansas--the marquee non-conference game and the SEC rotational game--significantly tougher than Georgia's slate of Georgia Tech, Alabama, and Auburn or Florida's of Florida State, LSU, and Ole Miss? The fact is, Tennessee hasn't won eight or more regular season games since 2007, and while even the relatively conservative 5Dimes projections think Tennessee will get there this season, they are not buying the nine and ten-win projections that have been floated in various places over the course of the spring. The Vols will have to prove they are ready to break out of the middle tier of the SEC East and into the top tier.
There has been some discussion already here at Rocky Top Talk of reasonable 2015 expectations, and while I am on record saying a good coaching job by Butch Jones should get the Vols to eight wins and give them a very good chance at nine, a glance at the schedule makes it easy to see why observers might be less optimistic. Alabama and Georgia are more talented than the Vols, Oklahoma crushed Tennessee last year, Florida and Missouri seem to have the Vols' number, even during down years, and Arkansas is a trendy SEC West breakout pick. That's six games that Tennessee could easily lose, and it doesn't even include South Carolina, who led the Vols by two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter in 2014. Couple the tough schedule with the fact that none of Butch Jones' recruits from his stellar 2014 and 2015 classes have ever beaten an eight-win team outside of Utah State, and there is some warrant for skepticism. Jones has assembled the talent to break through and take major strides from 2014, but it will require a breakthrough--they'll have to perform like Tennessee has not performed over the last seven years--so it's easy to see why sportsbooks would temper the optimism with some "believe it when I see it."
That said, while 5Dimes isn't setting the baseline expectation in Georgia-territory at eight or nine wins, a glance at the SEC Championship odds paint a much orangier picture. Tennessee and Florida may have both had win totals set at 7.5, but the Vols' SEC championship odds are 9-to-1, fifth in the conference behind Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and Ole Miss, while the Gators sit eleventh at 26-to-1. Georgia is the clear East favorite with 6-to-1 odds to win the conference, but Tennessee is more than thrice as close to the Bulldogs as the next closest competition: Missouri at 16-to-1. There may be some level of skepticism about whether the Vols will make the jump this season, but there is no question that Tennessee is far more likely to make a major jump than most of their East brethren.
In short, Vegas is not totally sold on Tennessee breaking out this year, but they see the Vols as far, far more likely to break out in a big way--like an SEC title way--than the rest of the projected SEC East middle class. What say you?