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Tennessee debuts in the top 25 of ESPN’s 2020 FPI

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Another rankings system is a fan of Tennessee.

NCAA Football: Gator Bowl-Indiana vs Tennessee Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

We already know that S&P+ thinks Tennessee will be a top 25 team in 2020. Now ESPN’s Football Power Index has joined that same line of thinking. Tennessee debuted at 19th in the first version of the 2020 metric.

The Volunteers are expected by most to take another step forward after rebounding from an 0-2 start to finish at 8-5 in 2019. Tennessee’s senior class was small, which means a ton of starters will return to the program in 2020, including the entire starting offensive line.

But in order to take that step forward, they’ll have to pull some upsets. Tennessee will face Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida and Alabama this year — four teams in the top 11 of the new FPI rankings. Can they knock off one of those teams? Two of those teams? That may all come down to how much the quarterback position improves for Tennessee — a clear weakness from last season.

Jarrett Guarantano returns for his senior season, which will be the first time in his career that he will have a coordinator for consecutive years. With the offensive line and running game that Tennessee should have, Guarantano may not even have to be spectacular, but the mistakes and missed throws have to improve in 2020.

Another strength of this team should be the defense as a whole, despite losing a key player on every level. Darrell Taylor, Daniel Bituli and Nigel Warrior are no more, but Tennessee isn’t lacking talent to replace them. Henry To’o To’o, Quavaris Crouch, Jaylen McCollough and a host of others should be ready to fill those shoes.

As we’ve seen in recruiting, it’s going to be tough to get past this next hurdle. While Tennessee ranks 19th in the country, that’s only good for 7th in the SEC — an illustration of how tough it is to rebuild in today’s SEC.

But Jeremy Pruitt is pretty clearly on the right track. The next step is competing for the SEC East and hanging with Florida and Georgia. We’ll see if he’s able to do that this fall.