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Vegas on the Vols: Time to Step Forward

With preseason lines out on eight of Tennessee's twelve 2015 contests, it's time to take a look at the numbers and see where the Vols stand in the eyes of outsiders.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As the calendar marches steadily towards August, 5Dimes has continued to release preseason lines for many high-profile college football games. Included among them are eight (yes, eight) Tennessee contests. After checking in on their view of the Vols in May and again in June, it is again time to check in and see how the world outside Knoxville has set expectations for the Volunteers this season.

In the previous two posts on 5Dimes' offseason odds, we observed Tennessee's season win total (over/under) initially set at 7.5 and their SEC title odds at +900 (9-to-1). In the last two months, those have gone in opposite directions. Tennessee's SEC title odds have fallen to +1100, but their win total has moved to 8. As Vols' fans search for rational expectations going into the 2015 season, it is instructive to see what unbiased observers have to say. And a win total of 8, juiced -125 on the over (click here for explanation of juice), indicates that the Vols are expected to go 8-4 in the regular season, with 9-3 mildly more likely than 7-5.

But with lines out for so many individual games, we can go deeper into that 8-4 expectation and see how the expectation breaks week-by-week. Additionally, by combining information from preseason lines for all seven SEC East teams (yes, all seven have lines out on at least one conference game), we can approximate a point spread power ranking for the East division. We'll start with the latter before examining Tennessee in more detail.

Rank Team Neutral site line vs favorite
1 Georgia --
2 Tennessee +4
3 Missouri +5
4 Florida +9
5 South Carolina +10
6 Kentucky +14
7 Vanderbilt +22

Unsurprisingly, the Bulldogs are the clear favorites in the East, with Tennessee and Missouri running neck-and-neck for the second spot, less than a touchdown behind Georgia. More than a field goal behind the Tigers, we see another tight race between Florida and South Carolina, with Kentucky and Vanderbilt occupying expected places in 6th and 7th.

This ordering should be no surprise, as it almost exactly mirrors the results of the media poll released last week (the only difference being Florida and South Carolina swapped at #4). It also mirrors 5Dimes' odds for the East title, although in the latter case, there is much more separation between the Vols (+260) and Tigers (+490). The East title odds do see Georgia fall short of being odds-on favorites, but at +170, they are still clearly the team to beat.

With the East power rankings in hand, we can fill in the gaps in the preseason lines (the Vols currently do not have lines for their matchups against South Carolina or Kentucky) and produce approximate lines for 10 of Tennessee's 12 games in the 2015 season. Furthermore, with the cunning use of spreadsheets and historical data, we can give approximate win probabilities for all 12 games.

Date Opponent Location Tennessee point spread Tennessee win probability
9/5 Bowling Green Nashville, TN -21 93%
9/12 Oklahoma Knoxville, TN -1.5 52%
9/19 Western Carolina Knoxville, TN NL* 99%
9/26 Florida Gainesville, FL -2.5 56%
10/3 Arkansas Knoxville, TN -2 53%
10/10 Georgia Knoxville, TN +1 49%
10/24 Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL +9.5 25%
10/31 Kentucky Lexington, KY -7 70%
11/7 South Carolina Knoxville, TN -9 75%
11/14 North Texas Knoxville, TN NL** 98%
11/21 Missouri Columbia, MO +2.5 44%
11/28 Vanderbilt Knoxville, TN -21 93%

Several things jump out when looking at this chart. First, Tennessee expects to be favored in 9 of their 12 games this season. They were favored in just 6 of 12 last season. Second, a whopping 5 of the Vols' contests currently have lines of less than a field goal in one direction or another. That's an enormous number of swing games--the Vols had just two contests with lines under a field goal in their first two years under Butch Jones--and if all other games break as expected, the swing games would make the difference between 6-6 and 11-1. Some of the biggest critics of Jones point to losses to Vanderbilt and Florida in his first two swing games as evidence that Jones will struggle to bring championships to Knoxville. In 2015, he will have plenty of opportunity to prove the doubters wrong or give them more ammunition. Looking deeper into the swing games, we see that, while Missouri finished a distant third when we asked who would be Tennessee's second toughest game, the oddsmakers have pegged them as the Vols' toughest test outside of Tuscaloosa. Speaking of which, it's nice to see that Alabama line back in single digits, isn't it?

Moving past the initial observations, we can use the win probabilities to calculate an expected win total for the 2015 regular season of 8.07. And using the tool that kidbourbon found for us last summer, we find that indeed 8-4 is the most likely outcome, with a 28% chance of occurring. 9-3 (23%) edges out 7-5 (21%) for second most likely.

Furthermore, we see that based on these lines and corresponding probabilities, Tennessee has a 97% chance of reaching a bowl in 2015, an 87% chance of winning at least seven games, and a 66% chance of winning eight. If you're looking for baseline expectations, that's a pretty good start. Even outside Knoxville, eight is expected. Seven is a disappointment, and six is a failure. On the more optimistic side of things, the Vols have a 39% chance of hitting 9-3 or better and a 15% chance of hitting ten regular season wins. Certainly not an expectation, but nine looks to be an entirely reasonable goal, and ten is not outside the realm of reasonable possibility--the numbers say 10-2 or better is more likely than 6-6 or worse.

The hype will surely increase as the season draws near, but while we're still being rational, the numbers paint a clear picture: the Vols are expected to take a big step forward in 2015. They need to hit 8-4 to keep building momentum on Jones' turnaround narrative. Worse than that and the 2016 offseason is full of questions. Better than that and you'll find us next summer talking championships. We're hoping for that last one. Go Vols.

*While there is no line on Western Carolina, they are an FCS team, and they lost 51-0 to Tennessee's FCS patsy last year. It is safe to assume the line on this game will be in the 30s or higher, which is 99% territory.

**Tennessee can be compared to North Texas, but it is through a long string of games. North Texas is +21 at Iowa, who is +14 at Wisconsin, who is +10.5 vs Alabama, who is -9.5 vs Tennessee. This suggests a line of roughly Tennessee -35 on this game, which is probably unrealistic. I am comfortable with point spread rankings based on multiple common opponents, but not on a chain that long. The line on this game will probably be more like 27 than 35, which puts it in 98% territory.