With SEC Media Days taking place this week, it’s that time of year where everybody starts asking The Question again: How are the Vols going to do this season?
To me, it’s less about what the Vols accomplish in terms of an overall win-loss record and more about what they do against the second tier of the SEC East. Take care of that business (and run the table against the non-conference), and the overall record will take care of itself.
The second tier in the SEC East
Losing on a regular basis to Georgia and Florida (and Alabama) will get even the best coaches fired. But anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Tennessee has been wandering around in a damp, dark cellar for too many years now, and the way to the penthouse begins by climbing out of the basement. Put another way, we can’t deal with the first-world challenge of beating the Big 3 rivals on a regular basis until we solve the third-world problem of losing all too often to teams like South Carolina, Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky.
That stings just to type, but facts are facts. Granted, Kentucky hasn’t been too much trouble recently, as they’ve beaten the Vols only twice in the past ten years, but they have had more success lately than history suggests they should have.
The others, though, have been major thorns in the side of the program the past several years. Tennessee is 2-5 against Missouri since 2012 and has lost the last two. The Vols are 3-6 against South Carolina since 2010 and have lost the last three. And after 22 Ws in a row from 1983-2004, Tennessee is now 2-5 against the Commodores since 2012, losing the last three in a row. I don’t need to add all that up to know that it’s an unprecedented level of futility for a proud program.
The first order of business for the Vols is correcting that problem. What they do against the Tide, Bulldogs, and Gators this season won’t matter nearly as much as what they do against the SEC East’s second tier.
It won’t be easy, but finishing at or near the top of that group of teams is doable even this season. Tennessee should have the edge over a Vanderbilt team replacing quarterback Kyle Shurmur, and in any event the Commodores look like they’re going to have trouble compiling a decent SEC East record. In our Gameday on Rocky Top 2019 magazine, we predicted an 0-8 SEC record and last-place finish in the East for the ‘Dores.
As for the Wildcats, they probably peaked last year, as they have to replace running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen. The schedule could present a problem for the Vols in this game — it will be the sixth in a row for the Vols, while Kentucky will be coming off a bye. For that reason, I’m putting this down as a loss for Tennessee. Despite that, I believe the Vols will finish with a better SEC record than the Wildcats and therefore ahead of them in the SEC East standings.
The real competition among this group this fall should be South Carolina and Missouri, as they and Tennessee are all ranked in the 20s in our magazine’s Top 25. We have the Gamecocks tied with the Vols in the SEC at 3-5 despite having the most difficult schedule among SEC teams, but we also have Tennessee winning the head-to-head and thus finishing ahead of them in the SEC East standings.
Missouri is the only team that we’ve actually picked to finish ahead of the Vols this fall, and we’ve done it despite predicting that Tennessee will beat them. Missouri not only appears to be a better team at this point, its schedule is also ridiculously easy. I think the Vols will beat them thanks to a quirk in the schedule (Tennessee has a bye the week before, while Missouri will be coming off consecutive games against Georgia and Florida), but Missouri will still likely finish ahead of the Vols in the standings. One game either way, though, and Tennessee could edge them out to come out on top of the SEC East second tier.
Secondary goal: Be competitive in the rivalry games
As I said earlier, competing directly with Alabama, Georgia, and Florida for the SEC conference or divisional crown will always be the chief goal for the Vols program, but it’s a long way to the penthouse and it’s guarded by a well-armed security detail.
This season, a reasonable goal is to simply make these games more competitive. The good news is that the bar is low. Hide the children; I’m about to remind you of the recent results:
- 2018: 21-58 (37-point loss)
- 2017: 7-45 (38-point loss)
- 2018: 12-38 (26-point loss)
- 2017: 0-41 (41-point loss)
- 2018: 21-47 (26-point loss)
- 2017: 20-26 (6-point loss)
I’m not yet convinced that Florida has actually risen to the level of Georgia and Alabama at this point, but they do seem to be well ahead of the Vols in their rebuild. I have them beating Tennessee this season and also finishing second in the East to Georgia, but I’m also keeping my eye on the fact that they have lost four starters along the offensive line. Of the Big 3 games, Florida is the most winnable for the Vols. I wouldn’t expect a win, but I would expect it to be competitive.
Georgia and Alabama are currently juggernauts, and the goal against these guys this fall is to keep the game respectable. Avoid double-digit losses this season and then make a run at winning next year.
Converting this into wins and losses, that’s seven wins for Tennessee this season: four wins against non-conference opponents and three out of four against the second tier of the SEC East. Mississippi State is a tossup game that I’m guessing will go against the Vols, but it’s also a good opportunity for an additional win.
What about you? How do you expect things to play out this fall?