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Vegas on the Vols: Finally Favorites

The Vols are finally favorites in the SEC East this year. But how much space do they have between them and their nearest competition? And what are the chances that they reach double-digit regular season wins for the first time since 2001?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee is expected to win the SEC East. They were the clear #1 in the media poll, and they are the odds-on favorite in the online sportsbooks (translation: Tennessee is considered more likely to win the East than the other six teams put together). But who is their biggest threat? 5Dimes preseason lines are out for seven of the Vols' 12 contests this season. And by combining the lines for these and other SEC contests, we can get a rough point spread power ranking for the SEC East.

Team Neutral site line vs favorite
Tennessee --
Georgia +5
Florida +7
Vanderbilt +18
Missouri +18
South Carolina +18
Kentucky +18

I've attempted to put Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina, and Kentucky in order, but the four are so far behind the rest of the division that (1) there aren't many lines released for their games, and (2) they're 2-4 touchdown underdogs against their biggest rivals, making it difficult to make small distinctions, so the order is an educated guess. What is not an educated guess is that the SEC East is viewed as a three-team race. The Vols are the clear favorite, and the Bulldogs and Gators are the challengers. Each of the other four teams will be double-digit underdogs against each of the top three teams.

Currently, the sportsbooks seem to be siding with Joel in picking Georgia as Tennessee's biggest threat. The Bulldogs are currently 1.5-point favorites in Jacksonville in their annual rivalry game and will be favored by six or more points in five of their eight SEC games. Florida, on the other hand, has the tougher SEC West schedule, getting a title contender at home and having to play a quality Arkansas team on the road. Currently, Florida projects to be underdogs in four of their eight SEC contests, with Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, and Arkansas expected to top the Gators.

The odds to win the division are consistent with this ordering. At -125 (a bettor must bet $125 to win $100), Tennessee is the clear favorite. Georgia is the favored challenger at +275 (a bettor must bet $100 to win $275), and a slightly less talented Florida team with a much tougher schedule comes in as the clear #3 at +470.

By adding in games with the SEC West, we can get a point-spread power ranking for the entire conference:

Team Neutral site line vs favorite
Alabama --
LSU +2
Tennessee +4
Ole Miss +7
Georgia +9
Florida +11
Auburn +11
Arkansas +12
Texas A&M +13
Mississippi State +14
Vanderbilt +22
Missouri +22
South Carolina +22
Kentucky +22

After following a struggling team for years, it may surprise Vols fans to see Tennessee so close to the top. The Vols are a solid third in the SEC, just a field goal behind Alabama and LSU (give or take a point) and a touchdown or more ahead of a tight grouping of four teams at the bottom of the SEC West. Accordingly, the Vols have the second-highest odds to win the SEC (tied with LSU at +405) and are part of a group of just eight teams whose national title odds are 20-to-1 or better.

Putting these into Tennessee's schedule, combined with educated guesses on the lines against Ohio and Tennessee Tech, allows us to project preseason lines for all 12 of the Vols' contests this fall. And with a chart of historical win probability by betting line, we can also set a preseason expectation for Tennessee's record this fall:

Date Opponent Location Tennessee point spread Tennessee win probability
9/1 Appalachian State Knoxville, TN -21.5 93%
9/10 Virginia Tech Bristol, TN -12.5 78%
9/17 Ohio Knoxville, TN -27 98%
9/24 Florida Knoxville, TN -10 75%
10/1 Georgia Athens, GA -2 53%
10/8 Texas A&M College Station, TX -4.5 61%
10/15 Alabama Knoxville, TN +1.5 48%
10/29 South Carolina Columbia, SC -15 84%
11/5 Tennessee Tech Knoxville, TN -45 99%
11/12 Kentucky Knoxville, TN -22 93%
11/19 Missouri Knoxville, TN -21 93%
11/26 Vanderbilt Nashville, TN -14.5 84%

Lines in bold are official, others are projected.

Tennessee expects to be favored in 11 games this season, the most in over a decade, and up two from last season. That may not come as a surprise for a preseason top ten team, but a fan base that seems to view this season as eight expected wins and four tough contests may well be surprised to find that the Vols should be favored by double-digits in a whopping nine(!) contests this fall. Yes, that includes Florida. If you buy what the sportsbooks are selling, Florida is closer to the Virginia Tech/Vanderbilt/South Carolina category than it is to the Alabama/Georgia/Texas A&M category. Might be hard to buy after ten years of futility, but it sure sounds like a welcome change.

However, despite being favored by double-digits in nine games, the Vols' expected win total is a much less inspiring 9.6. Although nine wins would represent Tennessee's highest regular season win total since 2007, 9-3 would surely be a disappointment against this schedule. But the preseason odds say that it is well within the realm of possibility.

How realistic is the goal of 10-2 or better? Using a combinatorial tool from 8th maxim, commissioned by kidbourbon two years ago, we can easily find the chances, based on preseason lines, that the Vols win nine, ten, eleven, even twelve games (hint: input "12" as the number of entries, then input the win probabilities for each game as a decimal).

And doing that, we find that 10-2 is indeed the most likely result this season, occurring 31% of the time. 9-3 (27%) is more likely than 11-1 (19%), but the chances that the Vols win ten or more games are 55%. Winning 10+ games is not only a realistic goal, it's the expectation. The chances of making a bowl, so central in the preseason conversations during the early part of the decade, are 99.9%, a virtual lock. But this year, Vols fans are more concerned with 12 wins than with six. And the chances of going undefeated are a solid 5%--more than ten times higher than they were last season.

If you think the Vols will need to sweep the East to make an appearance in Atlanta, you would do well to bet on the field to win the SEC East, as Tennessee's odds of going 6-0 against their East rivals are just 24%. But if you want to see Tennessee 11-1 or better, playing in Atlanta with a playoff berth on the line. . . 24% is a lot better odds than we've seen in a long time.

Expectations are here, and they aren't just here for those in the greater Knoxville area. It's time to deliver. Go Vols!