The web browser marks the changing seasons: my most-visited sites were once SP+ and SportSource Analytics, and most recently every bowl projection I can find, to try to understand this Rose Bowl madness. But already, winter’s champions emerge once more: KenPom, the Bracket Matrix, and Bart Torvik.
In KenPom, the Vols are third overall this morning, still boasting what would finish as their highest rating in program history. The Bracket Matrix still has their preseason projections up, reflecting a pre-Colorado, pre-Atlantis world. In it, the Vols were the first #3 seed. That number is in the neighborhood of the best of what we’ve seen from Rick Barnes’ teams at UT, and the best in program history:
- #2 Seeds: 2006, 2008, 2019
- #3 Seeds: 2018, 2022
My favorite feature at Torvik’s site is the T-Ranketology, a predictive bracketology, which shows you after any given result how the field of 64 might end up looking. Like anything else, we wouldn’t turn to it this time of year expecting full-on accuracy in March.
But as the calendar turned to December this week, note the team at the top:
We noted Tennessee’s ascension from Atlantis to Atlantis, where the Vols went to the Bahamas five years ago and scored a huge overtime win against #18 Purdue to put themselves in the conversation, and five years later won the whole thing by smothering the defending national champs. And it’s the conversation that remains football’s greatest accomplishment this season, the Vols appearing in every mock 12-team bracket you’ll find this week.
Believing your team can win championships is the goal. Five years ago, when the Vols went to the Bahamas, basketball hadn’t even made the NIT in three years. Baseball hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 12 years, and Tony Vitello was preparing for year one. And football was finishing up the first and only 4-8 season in program history.
In 2022, the baseball team was number one in the country for most of the year. Football was number one in the initial college football playoff rankings. And it’s early, but basketball is building a resume that could earn the program’s first ever number one seed.
It’s early. And, truth be told, it’s still early in the stories of Tony Vitello and Josh Heupel at Tennessee too. What Rick Barnes and basketball have built is the hope of sustainability: you’re not just good because Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and all those guys are on your team for a couple years. Those teams do their part, earn their place on the banners, and pass the chase on to the next group, ready to pursue anew.
In 2022, the three programs with the most eyeballs in the men’s athletic department can put a super regional, an SEC Tournament title, and a New Year’s Six bowl on the board. Baseball and football also reached the top of the mountain in the regular season; basketball could be building that for Selection Sunday.
Hey, I’m frustrated with the bowl selection process too. But the most important work this football team could do is already secure. Basketball, alongside them, can give itself the opportunity to do something in the bracket the program has never done before.
And in all three sports, from where we were five years ago at Thanksgiving, to where we are in this first month of December?
Give thanks. Go Vols.