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Way too early top 25: Where does Tennessee slot in for 2023?

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Clemson at Tennessee Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

The Georgia Bulldogs put the finishing touches on a perfect season on Monday night, thrashing TCU to win their second title in a row. Starting today, we’re full steam ahead to the 2023 season.

A tradition on the day after the national championship? Way too early rankings for next season, of course. ESPN put their new top 25 out on Tuesday morning, giving us a quick look at the 2023 picture. With Tennessee set to look very different on offense, where should the Volunteers land?

According to ESPN writer Mark Schlabach, they’ll be a top ten team.

10. Tennessee Volunteers

The Volunteers enjoyed their best campaign in more than two decades and finally returned to national relevancy. Now, Josh Heupel has to replace many of the key pieces from his high-flying offense, including Hooker and star wideouts Hyatt and Tillman. Michigan transfer Joe Milton played well during a 31-14 victory over Clemson in the Capital One Orange Bowl, throwing for 251 yards with three touchdowns.

Tennessee slotted in behind Georgia (1), Alabama (5) and LSU (8) in the SEC.

The 2023 Volunteers are an interesting projection, and frankly without that Orange Bowl performance, I don’t think anyone has them in the top ten looking ahead. There were a ton of questions entering the bowl, but Josh Heupel and Joe Milton answered all of them. The defense was fantastic, and Squirrel White looked more than ready to take over for Jalin Hyatt. Still, some consistency questions remain with Milton, but his 2022 season was very promising.

Tennessee welcomes a loaded defensive class this offseason, anchored by a couple of blue-chippers on the edge and at cornerback. Five-star defensive tackle Daevin Hobbs and four-star linebacker Arion Carter solidified Tennessee’s top ten class with late commitments, and both have a chance to help early on. Arizona State starter Omarr Norman-Lott fills a need a defensive tackle, while BYU transfer Keenan Pili fills Jeremy Banks’ shoes at linebacker. The Volunteers will have to replace Byron Young, but they have a chance to be better defensively in 2023.

Tennessee will go to Florida and Alabama this year, and host Georgia and Texas A&M. They open with Virginia in Nashville, and will welcome UTSA in a tricky non-conference matchup following the matchup with the Gators. South Carolina will come to Knoxville, and the Volunteers will travel to Kentucky.

Can the Vols get back to ten wins? That certainly feels possible. Again though, Tennessee’s success runs through Joe Milton. After that Orange Bowl performance, 10th does feel about right.