Last week ESPN released an updated FPI projection for 2017, pegging the Vols at 19th overall. The more interesting piece is the game-by-game projection of UT’s schedule, calling the Vols the favorite in nine contests and projecting 7.9 wins.
You can argue over a couple of percentage points here and there, but my main takeaway is this: FPI gives the Vols between a 38-75% chance in seven games.
Indiana State, UMass, and Southern Miss all rate 95%+ (though I might knock that Southern Miss game down a few points). Alabama hangs out at 13.5%. Then they’ve got Vanderbilt at 81.1% in Knoxville, though we all remember how that went last time.
But the rest of the schedule is projected to be some degree of a close game. And when you’re talking about seven games in that range, there’s a whole lot of room for success and failure.
On the eve of last year’s kickoff, we looked at Tennessee’s history in one possession games. Since league expansion in 1992 the Vols had played in 107 one possession games coming into last year, an average of 4.5 per season. Last year the Vols played...only four, though it feels like more because Florida, Ohio, and Vanderbilt were still what I would consider “close games” with a pull-away score late. Butch Jones was 2-5 in one possession games against ranked teams coming into 2016, then beat Georgia and lost to Texas A&M to move to 3-6.
The best way to win close games is still not to play them; Mike DeBord isn’t around anymore so we don’t have to deal with preconceived notions that became increasingly inaccurate about his conservative nature leading to more close games. But no matter how aggressive Larry Scott might be, the nature of the SEC beast right now leans heavily toward close games almost every week.
Consider this: in 2012, the first year Missouri and Texas A&M were in the league, 32 of 56 regular season league games were decided by 17+ points. There were more blowouts than not. But in each of the four years since then, by my count 36 of 56 regular season league games have been decided by 16 points or less. That means 64% of SEC games since 2013 - all of Butch Jones’ tenure - have been decided by one or two possessions. And if you take out Alabama’s six 17+ point SEC regular season wins last year, 72% of the remaining games were decided by two possessions or less.
From five or six months away, I can tell you it’s a good idea not to get all hot and bothered if the Vols beat Kentucky, Missouri, or even Georgia Tech in a close game. That’s simply and increasingly the way things go: the worst teams in this league are significantly stronger than the worst teams of 20, 10, or even five years ago. In the SEC East, FPI projects Georgia to win 8.4, Tennessee and Florida 7.9, Kentucky 6.7 and Missouri 6.5. The dogfight may extend beyond the usual trio at the top. And a Tennessee team breaking in a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator will almost certainly have to learn how to win close games on the fly.