The hopes were high for many for the Tennessee Volunteers entering 2023 after a 11-2 season topped off with a 31-14 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Joe Milton and the offense looked electric in the season’s final two games following Hendon Hooker’s season-ending knee injury.
However, reality struck hard in September after Tennessee put forth a listless performance in a 29-16 loss to what’s turned out to be a very bad Florida team. And that reality was: the Vols lost a lot more than some people thought when Hendon Hooker, Jalin Hyatt, Darnell Wright, Cedric Tillman, Byron Young, and Princeton Fant all left for the NFL. The Vols also managed to lead Alabama in Tuscaloosa 20-7 before completely imploding in the second half in a 34-20 loss. Two big rivalry games, two deflating losses.
But the Vols can still do something that makes the season noteworthy and memorable in a good way, and that’s reach the 10-win mark. That accomplishment has been very, very hard to come by since the turn of the century.
And winning 10 games in back-to-back seasons is something that Tennessee hasn’t pulled off since the 2003-04 seasons, when UT went 10-3 two years in a row. After a decade and a half of five, six, seven wins many years, the number 10 represents a very good season. Doing it twice in a row would represent sustained success, something this program has DESPERATELY been looking for since Phillip Fulmer’s better days.
If the Vols can clip Missouri, then the Vegas odds would favor Tennessee hitting the mark again. Georgia, with or without Brock Bowers, is going to be a massive challenge at home, obviously. I think it’s a game that Tennessee can win, to be clear. 2022 proved that anything is possible at home for UT lately.
But if the Vols lose to Georgia, they will still probably be around 30-point favorites at home against Vanderbilt, give or take a few points, before their bowl matchup. Most bowl projections have Tennessee traveling to the state of Florida to face a team that the Vols would likely be moderate favorites against - and in some cases (i.e., Minnesota and Georgia Tech) large favorites.
As such, getting one of the next two games is necessary to hit that mark, and the odds say that is far more likely to happen tomorrow, as much at UT fans might project bravado for the following weekend against Georgia.
But it won’t be easy. Missouri is going to be a big challenge. Brady Cook had some head-scratching throws late last week against Georgia, but that was an aberration from what his season has mostly been like. Tennessee’s defense made Devin Leary and Kentucky look flat-out nasty two weeks ago, which is a sad thing. Missouri will put up 40+ if that defensive showing is repeated.
However, Tennessee’s offense has clicked and found its groove since the Texas A&M game went final. Milton seems to have grown as a QB, and he’s developed as a passer and in reading defenses as the middle of the season has gone by. Tennessee should be able to move the ball repeatedly and crack a 200+/200+ effort in the running and passing games.
As such, the game will largely turn on Tennessee’s pass rush. If they can force some mistakes from Cook, I think Tennessee wins by double digits. If they can’t and repeat the same effort from the second half of Alabama and Kentucky, then the Vols will be fortunate to win a high-scoring coin flip of a game.
And if they can find a way on Saturday, then Tennessee will be one big step closer to proving that 2022 wasn’t a one-hit wonder and that Josh Heupel is taking the program in the right direction.