Where would you personally rank Tennessee football right now? Ignore the idea of something like AP rankings or a blind resume ranking. I’m asking for a simple “Among 130 FBS teams, who do you think Tennessee is better than? Who are they worse than?” You don’t have to give an exact number necessarily. A range is a lot easier and just as telling.
Personally, I would rank Tennessee in the 80s. Their record and the teams they’ve lost to indicates a team that simply isn’t in the top half of the nation. Yet, they’ve had bright spots and look more competent now than they ever did against Georgia State. I would also put the offense as one of the worst in the nation.
Luckily, people who don’t feel anxiety when looking at numbers can help us out here. After 6 weeks, the ratings systems for college football are starting to become more consistent. It makes sense—more data points, better picture of the college football landscape. I’m a big fan of a couple, and they help me understand more of what I am watching.
We’ve compiled three ratings systems for college football and broken down some of the numbers they give for Tennessee. Below, we give our major takeaways from the numbers.
Special Teams: 44th
Bill Connelly’s well respected SP+ system is by far the kindest to Tennessee. While it is similarly down on the offense, SP+ does not have Tennessee as a bottom tier team. In fact, they’re in the top half of the FBS by these numbers. The defense isn’t knocked as much thanks to a combination of tempo-adjusted and opponent-adjusted ratings.
It’s hard to say whether this makes it better or worse that Tennessee is 1-4 right now. It signals that Tennessee has simply gotten unlucky in some of their losses (BYU being the most blatant) and could be on track to close out with a few more wins than expected. Yet the ratings could be seen as indicating deeper issues. It might even signal that the mental hiccups are simply overriding what should be a bowl level team. That’s scary to think about.
Tennessee gets knocked heavily in this system because it only looks at FBS vs. FBS matchups. So their one win is not taken into account.
Either way, it’s not a pretty picture. While I would argue that Tennessee’s defense is better than 88th in the nation, I’m not sure this system is all that far off when ranking the offense. Fans should keep in mind that in three of Tennessee’s FBS games this season (excluding Georgia State), they’ve scored a combined 23 points in regulation. A lot of signs point to this offense being worse than last year. Despite having a significantly better offensive line.
It does not inspire confidence in Jim Chaney, to say the least.
The FEI also gives percentage chances that a team will lose X amount of games. Right now, Tennessee’s two most likely outcomes are 9 losses (32 percent) and 10 losses (36 percent).
Special Teams: 37th
ESPN’s own formula is very similar to the FEI ratings for the offense and defense. Where they clearly diverge is the overall ranking. If I had to guess, I’d say the inclusion of a top-40 special teams unit has bumped that overall ranking—but I have no idea how that is weighted, and it is simply a guess. Much of what you observe with FEI can be said with the FPI.
Every system agrees that Tennessee’s offense has taken a step back in 2019. Each system listed above had Tennessee’s 2018 offense rated significantly higher than the current offense. That is by far the most worrying part of this season. Tennessee’s offensive line has undergone an impressive improvement in just a single year, yet their presumed starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano took a step back—to the point where they’re having to start true freshman Brian Maurer. It is completely fair to say that Jim Chaney has had an awful beginning to his most recent Tennessee stint.
That being said, it is also possible that Maurer provides the boost that Guarantano couldn’t. Sometimes you simply need a different set of eyes under center to get the offense in a rhythm. Yet it seems ill-advised to think that a true freshman will have an offense looking better against what figures to be the toughest stretch of SEC defenses on the year.
Optimism comes from the defensive side of the ball. They certainly have their deficiencies (a very questionable pass rush to start with) but the defense has truly been let down by the offense to this point. The final scores make it seem like Tennessee’s defense is a sieve, but Connelly’s system (and most objective observers) realize that they are being left out to dry. This part of the team might actually get better as the season goes on if they can keep their heads up.
Right now I’d agree most with the SP+ assessment of the team. Yet I’d also say that FEI’s loss projections are pretty close to what I think transpires over these next few games. No ratings system can capture the damaged mentality of a team. If the Vols can’t win this weekend...they might not win another the rest of the year.