Year two of the Josh Heupel era kicks off on Thursday night, with Ball State serving as the opponent. Tennessee is favored by five touchdowns in that one, and should cruise to win No. 1 on the year. But the bigger question remains — how many can they win on the year?
The Volunteers are expected to be neck and neck with Kentucky for the second spot in the SEC East, as both still try to play catch-up to Georgia. DraftKings Sportsbook has set the total at 7.5 wins for Tennessee, and most seem to think they go just north of that. Can they get anymore than that?
Here are our staff’s thoughts.
Terry Lambert: 8-4
I really tried every which way I could to get to nine, but I’ll settle in at eight for the regular season win total.
It comes down to this — I expect Tennessee to give Georgia and Alabama a scare, but they most likely just don’t have the roster to finish those two off. From there, attention shifts to Florida at home, at Pittsburgh and at LSU. The Volunteers certainly have the talent to win all three of these, but that’s probably unrealistic to expect. Odds are they drop at least one of these, maybe even two. The meeting with Kentucky likely determines second place in the SEC East, and the rest of the schedule is just simply about taking care of business.
I expect Tennessee to be really good, taking another step forward under Josh Heupel. But this schedule is going to provide some speed bumps.
Nick Carner: 7-5
I’m consistently, notoriously cynical. That’s just how I am. I know I dolled out the lowest win total for the Vols when we did this exercise last year, and I know I was wrong. That’s a necessary preamble.
And I can certainly understand why folks are high on this team: With Hooker and Tillman back, the offense is gonna do what it does. There’s some young, dynamic athletes in Jaylen Wright, Squirrel White, Dylan Sampson, Jimmy Calloway. But neither Wright nor starting RB Jabari Small has been able to stay healthy. And one major injury to an offensive lineman has the potential to throw this whole train off the tracks. The offense scored tons of points on busted coverages last season, and maybe we get those point again this year, and maybe we don’t.
Defensively, Tennessee doesn’t have to be great, but it does have to be better. It lost two NFL draft picks in the secondary, but that group should be improved with the additions of Wesley Walker, Dee Williams and Andre Turrentine, along with Tamarion McDonald taking serious strides in the offseason and nailing down a starting spot at the star. As a whole, if the defense could get 1.5 more third-down stops per game than it did last season, it would rank middle-ish of the pack nationally, based on last year’s numbers. That would be huge.
There’s just so many games that look like they could be swing games, until we see these teams on the field, like @Pitt, Florida, @LSU, @South Carolina and Kentucky. The game against UF is a beast in its own category, though, really. I won’t pick the Vols over the Gators until I see it happen again. I just can’t.
I could be talked into any of the predictions that my contemporaries here at Rocky Top Talk have made, but my gut says we’re not quite there, yet.
Matthew Seese: 9-3
I’ve got the Vols at 9-3 this season with a real shot at 10-2 if they can eek one out in Death Valley in early October. I have Alabama and Georgia as the two losses. Juggernauts are juggernauts and they’re not moving any time soon. LSU is the toss-up.
The biggest advantage Tennessee has over many teams on its schedule is that their offense is a sure thing. With many teams like Pitt, LSU, and Florida having to reload at key positions on that side of the ball, the Vols with Hooker/Small/Tillman are much more of a sure thing.
The offensive line is in firm “we’ll see how it plays out” territory for me.
Defensively, I am concerned, but not the hair-pulling-out concerned the way many of us were a year ago, and when you have No. 5 under center, you’re going to be in every game, so the DBs and pass rush will definitely need to step up.
Clint Eiland: 8-4
Similar vibes to Terry. I think this team truly does have the ability to win 9, and maybe even 10 games. But a brutal schedule has turned 8-4 into an expectation rather than a floor. I’ve got Tennessee losing to Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and one other surprise SEC opponent (my money is on one of Missouri or South Carolina). The Volunteers should handle business against their non-conference matchups, and I actually have them starting the season 4-0 with a win over Florida.
Going 8-4 would be solid progress, even if it is just one more win than the previous regular season. I’m fully sold on Tennessee’s offense—but I need to see more from the defense before I’m willing to buy in to every member of this staff as a long term option.