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Rocky Top Talk Roundtable: Predicting Tennessee’s record in 2021

How many will they win?

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Josh Heupel Era officially begins next Thursday when the Tennessee Volunteers host the Bowling Green Falcons. It’s crazy to think that the 2021 season has arrived, but, here we are.

How will the Big Orange fair this year? There’s a lot to uncover as the season rolls on, but of course, we already know what’s going to happen here over at Rocky Top Talk.

Just kidding, of course. But as we all know, this is the time to make record predictions, so alas, here we are.

Let’s take a look at what the staff at RTT thinks in terms of Tennessee football’s 2021 record.

Clint: I actually think Tennessee football has a very high floor for this season. Whatever you think of the roster turnover, it’s still very unlikely that Tennessee comes out looking like an absolute disaster against their three “layup” games of Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, and South Alabama. They should still have a clear edge over Vanderbilt as well. New head coach Josh Heupel has an offensive style that works 99% of the time against less talented defenses—and Tennessee’s offense didn’t lose as much as the other side of the ball.

But the number of question marks surrounding new coordinators and entirely new faces on defense makes me hesitant to say Tennessee reaches a bowl game. I just don’t see them being the better overall team against “winnable” opponents like Ole Miss and Pittsburgh. With the offense, you know what you’re getting when Heupel has the play calling sheet. Tim Banks by comparison is a huge mystery and I’m not sure any amount of transfers on defense will help them put together a good unit.

Considering the offseason turmoil post 2020...getting to 5-7 should not be looked down upon. Anything beyond that is house money.

Record Prediction: 5-7

Wins: South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama

Evan: My record prediction certainly won’t reflect my budding optimism for the season, but that’s only because there are so many questions surrounding this team.

I mean, there are questions at nearly every position on the roster. We don’t know how effective 80% of the starting roster will be until kickoff against the Falcons. The previously aforementioned questions will become even bigger as the year moves forward because at some point, backups are going to have to play. What happens from that point on is anyone’s guess.

And honestly, the biggest question -fair or not- is Heupel. Will his offense translate to the SEC? Will he translate to the SEC? How will he lead the locker room during what is probably going to be a long season? Can he keep things together enough to not only salvage the 2022 recruiting class, but to convince the current players believing in him?

I really do think the Vols are going to be competitive in a few games. They’ll make the season somewhat-fun and give fans a glimmer of hope for 2022 and beyond. But in terms of wins and losses, expect more of the latter and fewer of the former.

Record Prediction: 4-8

Wins: Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama, Vanderbilt

Nick: It looked like new Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel did better at UCF when he was playing with Scott Frost’s rosters. Heupel’s record declining three years in a row there could mean a lot of things, but, in my estimation, it’s likely one of these two: it could have been an anomaly — most teams perform better once the new coach has recruited his players for his system — just some combination of numerous different factors that caused things to go wrong, or it could just be that Heupel isn’t a great coach and rode Frost’s vehicle till the wheels fell off.

Tennessee had more talent than last year’s record shows, but several key pieces of that team are now playing on other teams. The cupboard isn’t bare, and the staff did well to address what weaknesses it could through the portal but the Vols won’t out talent many games on this schedule. There’s just three, should-be easy dubs — BG, South Alabama and TN Tech — but then there’s no other games I’m willing to say Tennessee wins comfortably. I mean, Vanderbilt, too, in theory...

Quarterback is a concern until we see it isn’t. There’s potential in the backfield and with the wide receivers. Does Darnell Wright take a leap this season, and paired with Cade Mays make the beginnings of a serviceable offensive line? It’s possible. Perhaps Heupel’s offense lights some teams up. Perhaps he can help mask some deficiencies with scheme and play calling. Perhaps he can motivate these guys to play clean, mistake-free football and unwittingly outpace their own talent. Perhaps.

Trying to cobble together this defense is probably going to be like reassembling shredded papers. But at least with the shreds of paper, all the original pieces are there. From back to front: the secondary could be decent with upperclassmen Alontae Taylor, Trevon Flower and Jaylen McCollough anchoring the unit. If we can manage a year with no serious injuries to the linebackers, they might be okay, too. I love Tyler Baron’s potential off the edge, and I have high hopes for some youngers guys like Morven Joseph, Roman Harrison and Bryson Eason. Outside of maybe Matthew Butler, I don’t have much confidence in the rotation players at DL, but Rodney Garner is an excellent coach, and apparently the group played well in fall camp.

All in all, I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

Record Prediction: 4-8

Wins: Bowling Green, South Alabama, Vanderbilt, Tennessee Tech

Terry: Call me the optimistic one here, I guess.

Tennessee lost so much talent to the transfer portal. Eric Gray, Henry To’o To’o, Wanya Morris, Key Lawrence.... I could go on, but you know the story by now. However, I do think this staff has done a pretty nice job of plugging some roster holes through the spring and summer.

Juwan Mitchell isn’t Henry T, but he’s an experienced vet who has played in a similar system. Da’Jon Terry and Caleb Tremblay re-established some depth on the defensive front, while Brandon Turnage and Kamal Hadden have given the cornerback room a real boost. It’s not perfect, but it’s not exactly all doom and gloom on that side of the ball anymore.

The offense will be the key however, as Heupel tries to fire up his proven system. He’s produced everywhere he’s been with a variety of different quarterbacks, and Tennessee should be no different. Players have spoken about how the system is simpler, which should allow them to play at the pace the staff wants. I don’t think there’s going to be some huge transitional period here.

Tennessee has good talent at running back and wide receiver, and a decent looking — although fairly thin — offensive line. The question comes at quarterback. Joe Milton is expected to get the nod over Harrison Bailey and Hendon Hooker, so can he put his Michigan days behind him?

I think these players respond to a simpler gameplan on offense and really respond fairly quickly to the new staff.

Obviously you have a handful of swing games, starting with Pittsburgh that will tell the tale of the season. I think they beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt, and I’ll be bold and say they take down a decent Pitt team in week two as the Panthers look to replace several pieces of their defense. Kentucky, Ole Miss and Missouri are a couple of steps ahead right now, and it doesn’t seem likely that Tennessee will have anything for Alabama, Georgia or Florida. But six wins would be an undeniable success for Heupel in 2021.

Record Prediction: 6-6

Wins: Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, Tennessee Tech, South Carolina, South Alabama, Vanderbilt