Vegas likes somewhere between 6.5 and 7 wins for Tennessee this fall, a good starting point for expectations. Advanced stats like S&P+ and FPI turned some heads earlier in the off-season when their initial projections slotted the Vols at 21st and 15th, respectively. But those are power rankings, which don’t take strength of schedule into account The real meat and potatoes of those systems are their projected win total; in S&P+, that’s 6.5 for the Vols (Bill Connelly’s preseason data for every team is available here).
But when FPI released their full projection for Tennessee late last week, their number for the Vols came in at 7.6. And we like to round up.
So you’ve got objective sources and systems putting the Vols somewhere between 6-6 and 8-4 this fall. That part sounds about right. But FPI’s win totals also paint what would be a very favorable bowl picture for Tennessee.
The FPI projected win totals from the top of the SEC down:
- Alabama: 11.0
- Georgia: 9.9
- LSU: 9.5
- Florida: 8.3
- Missouri: 8.1
- Mississippi State: 7.7
- Auburn: 7.7
- Tennessee: 7.6
- Texas A&M: 7.4
In our look at initial bowl projections in late May, we noted that the SEC has put 2.8 teams per year in the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six. Last year that number jumped to four. With the Sugar Bowl not hosting a semifinal game this year, the highest-ranked non-playoff SEC team is guaranteed a spot there.
So, for instance, if both history and FPI’s projections hold, and the league sends Alabama, Georgia, and LSU to the playoff and New Year’s Six, then sends Florida to the Citrus Bowl? If Tennessee is one of a crowded field of teams at 8-4 in the group of six bowls, its history and its two-year absence from any bowl game will make the Vols a prime candidate for, say, the Outback Bowl. That would be a pretty good year for Jeremy Pruitt in 2019.
Here’s the thing about the difference between 6-6 and 8-4: it will almost certainly be what the Vols did in close games. And Pruitt didn’t get much practice at that last season. The Vols held off Auburn late, and couldn’t finish at South Carolina. But otherwise Tennessee wasn’t sweating out a final drive.
The previous coaching staff courted close games, while also struggling to manage them well. As the Vols make progress and become more competitive, Pruitt will have to learn on the fly with things like clock management, when to go for it on fourth down, etc. And he’ll have to learn how to manage his team after close wins and close losses with much more on the line than we saw at South Carolina last year.
Remember, an 8-5 finish including the bowl game would be the third-best season in the last 12 years, and better than any post-Fulmer coach did in year two. If the Vols have eight wins going into the bowl, as FPI projects? Recent history suggests the Vols will spend the holidays in a better location than we might be imagining right now.
Only 54 days to go. If you’re looking for a reason for your optimism to kick in, FPI is happy to give it to you.