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Tennessee ranks No. 2 nationally in returning production metric

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Fascinating numbers here.

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

In the first year of Jeremy Pruitt’s time at Tennessee, the Vols were — well not very good. A 5-7 record fell just short of the ultimately goal of simply making a bowl game in year one. Two really good wins against ranked opponents — Auburn and Kentucky — were overshadowed by the end of the year after blowout losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.

Overall, it was about what was expected. Tennessee showed some bright spots, but ultimately lacked the talent to string wins together in the SEC. Jeremy Pruitt is doing something about the talent problem already, particularly up front on the offensive line.

So what can Tennessee fans expect in year two under Jeremy Pruitt? That remains to be seen. What we do know definitively is that Tennessee is set to return plenty of starters.

In fact, Tennessee is set to return the second most production in the entire country, according to Bill Connelly’s numbers. The Vols will return 91 percent of their defensive production, along with 76 percent of their offensive production. That’s a total of 83 percent, which ranks second behind Western Michigan. The closest SEC team following Tennessee is LSU, who returns 76 percent.

Will that returning production lead to more wins? According to the data, probably so.

Last year’s top 10 teams in returning production (omitting Liberty, which was in its first year in FBS) saw their win total increase by a combined 25 games, from 45 to 70, in 2018. Michigan State regressed by three wins, and Mississippi State regressed by one. The other eight all improved. Thus far for 2019, seven teams return 80 percent or more, including Tennessee.

The Vols return a now junior quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano, who will have to learn yet another offensive system. His weapons may be his greatest strength, however. Senior receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway will lead the group, along with emerging junior Josh Palmer. Junior backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan should form a potent combination in the Tennessee backfield.

Of course, the offensive line is the group in question, but Tennessee has added a ton to the position of the last two recruiting cycles. With five-star tackle Wanya Morris already signed and a really good chance that five-star tackle Darnell Wright could follow on Wednesday, Tennessee will be talented up front, but young.

Defensively is where you should see the most improvement with starting corners Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson and Baylen Buchanan having some experience under their belts. Tennessee will have to find a way to replace their entire defensive line, however, a position that wasn’t exactly a strength in 2018.

While last season was an overall disappointment, you can point to several different reasons as to why. Youth, new schemes, an overall lack of talent, offensive line woes — they all played a factor. With another year to develop players and to add talent, Tennessee should take a moderate step forward in 2019. At least that’s what the numbers say.