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ESPN makes the best and worst case for Tennessee football

What’s the floor?

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

What’s the ceiling and floor for Tennessee football in 2023? ESPN took that question on in their newly released power rankings this week. The Volunteers are coming off of an 11 win season in 2022, but they must replace key players like Hendon Hooker and Jalin Hyatt this fall. Joe Milton and company appear ready, but can they match the production — and wins — from a year ago?

I think we can all agree that the ceiling for this group is an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Tennessee was a win over South Carolina away from an appearance last year, and this roster appears to be much deeper than last season’s.

ESPN’s Chris Low agrees.

Best case: College Football Playoff semifinal. The Vols would have been in the playoff a year ago had it not been for the November debacle in Columbia where South Carolina won in a 63-38 rout. So Josh Heupel’s club wasn’t too far off in just his second season, as Tennessee won 11 games for the first time since the 2001 season. Despite losing Hooker and some other key players, Heupel thinks this will be the deepest and most talented roster he has had, and on defense, he anticipates the Vols being able to play more players. Tennessee gets Georgia at home in the next-to-last game of the season, so there’s a chance the SEC Eastern Division title could be on the line that Nov. 18 day in Knoxville.

But what’s the floor? That’s where the disagreement will begin. Road tests at Florida, Alabama and Kentucky will all be tough, while home games against Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M will provide challenges.

It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to find three or four losses in there, particularly if Milton struggles once again. Low found four regular season losses and a bowl loss, which left Tennessee at 8-5.

Worst case: 8-5 with losses to Florida, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia and the bowl opponent. Even though Tennessee avoids a stout nonconference test, the SEC schedule tilts against the Vols this season with trips to Florida, Alabama and Kentucky. This is the most excitement surrounding the start of a Tennessee football season in two decades, and the Vols aren’t going to catch anybody by surprise starting the season ranked so highly and with Heupel’s offense putting up record-setting numbers a year ago. If the offense falls off some with Joe Milton at the helm, is the defense good enough to make up the difference? The pivotal game is Florida. The Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003. Their season could vary wildly depending on they fare in the Swamp.

That Tennessee-Florida game will tell us quite a bit, similar to what the LSU game showed us last year. Once the Volunteers got past Florida and at LSU last year, a truly special season was there for the taking. If Tennessee gets past Florida in The Swamp for the first time since 2003, they’ll be primed and ready to make another run at the College Football Playoff. Should they lose? Well, that opens up the door for them to find that floor, which feels like 8-4 to me.

Per Draftkings Sportsbook, Tennessee’s win total sits at 9.5 for the 2023 season, for reference.

What do you think Tennessee’s floor is in 2023?