We think we know what we’re going to get from Tennessee in 2023. Perhaps they won’t be as consistent offensively without Hendon Hooker running the show, but the offense will still be potent with Joe Milton and a variety of weapons. A deeper defense may give Heupel’s offense a little more wiggle room too.
But what about the rest of the league? Several situations on Tennessee’s schedule could go a long way in determining the Vols’ outcome in 2023. New quarterbacks in Tuscaloosa, Athens, Gainesville and Lexington. New coordinators in key spots.
What does it all mean for Tennessee? Let’s explore.
Alabama’s quarterback battle
The narrative coming out of Tuscaloosa is that they’re getting in a time machine and heading back to 2009. That, due in part to new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, could be a direct result of the loss of Bryce Young and the lack of established options to replace him. I don’t think ‘Bama will be rolling back to I-formations exclusively, but there certainly has been an emphasis on physicality this offseason.
Nick Saban has been watching a quarterback battle unfold since the spring, consisting of run-first Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson (remember him?), Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner and four-star true freshman Dylan Lonergan. The battle has seemed to drag out, with no obvious answer in sight. Some believe Saban will simply role with Milroe, offering some sort of high-floor option that could boost the rushing attack.
Now, with that being said, think back to last October. Bryce Young was absolute magician for the Crimson Tide at Neyland Stadium, keeping them in the game until the bitter end. Can a more physical approach and a clearly less talented passing attack control the pace of the game and handle offenses like LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss? It’s going to be very interesting.
What will Florida look like?
Billy Napier’s year one Gators went 6-7 with a top five pick running the show under center. They’re now set to turn to Graham Mertz, who ended up flaming out at Wisconsin. The spring game was an abomination. Vegas has set the win total at just 5.5.
Expectations in Gainesville are as low as they’ve been in several years, and yet — Tennessee still has to go win in The Swamp. It’s something that they haven’t done since 2003, and serves as one of the final mental hurdles Josh Heupel’s team must clear.
Tennessee is currently a 7.5 point road favorite over Florida. They have a clear roster advantage, but a tiny hint of uncertainty still remains as the Volunteers move on without Hendon Hooker. This is a huge spot for Joe Milton, serving as his first true test of the season. Even more than that, Milton returns close to home for this test.
“I don’t lose in Florida,” Milton proclaimed this summer. It’s a massive prove it spot for Joe, and if he can, Tennessee will have a shot at another special season.
Can Devin Leary and Liam Coen elevate Kentucky?
For all the talk of Will Levis and Kentucky in 2022, it’s entirely possible that Kentucky gets better by sending the inconsistent, mayo-loving passer to the NFL. Levis’ struggles held the Kentucky offense back last season, culminating in a 44-6 loss at Neyland Stadium in late October.
However, Kentucky has lured back offensive coordinator Liam Coen and paired him with an upgrade at quarterback in Devin Leary. The former starter for NC State threw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2021, but saw his 2022 season get cut short after just five games due to injury. Pundits seemingly love to hype up Kentucky every offseason, but there’s real potential here if Leary can return to his 2021 form.
Tennessee has to go to Kroger Field directly after a trip to Tuscaloosa too, creating a tricky spot for the Volunteers.
Does Texas A&M bounce back?
Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies has a flat out weird 2022. Struggles at quarterback left them with a 5-7 overall record, yet Texas A&M nearly knocked off Alabama in Tuscaloosa and throttled LSU to end the year.
In the ultimate wildcard situation, Fisher turned around and hired Bobby Petrino to run his offense. Those two personalities running an offense together should be absolutely fascinating, and frankly, nobody has a clue what to make of the Aggies because of that. It seems like 10-2 is possible, while nobody would be surprised with a 4-8 result either.
Texas A&M will open the year in the top 25. They have a decent shot of entering their game against Alabama (Oct. 7) with a 5-0 record before coming to Knoxville on October 14th. This is a team with a large range of outcomes, so it may come down to which one shows up at Neyland Stadium in mid-October.
Will Georgia see any fall off with Carson Beck?
Finally, Stetson Bennett is gone. The Mailman led the Bulldogs to back to back titles, exhausting his eligibility and moving on to the NFL. Nobody is going to feel bad for Georgia, however. Kirby Smart had a couple of former top prospects as in-house options, and Carson Beck ran away with the job this offseason.
Beck had a fantastic spring game and appears more than ready to keep Georgia’s offense rolling. Will there be any fall off though? While it’s not likely, that’s not a question you can answer until the lights come on and it’s all on the line. Beck does have a cakewalk of a schedule — one that may not present him with a ranked opponent until November (Ole Miss/Tennessee).
Georgia will undoubtedly lean on elite defense and their run game, but it’s going to be interesting to see if Beck can come up with the same big plays in the passing game that Bennett did.