T Is for Toss-Up

In trusty SP+, this is about as good as it gets: Texas A&M is 13th nationally in those ratings, 16.9 points better than the average team. The Vols are right behind them at 14th and 16.6. On a neutral field, the Aggies would be favored by 0.3 points.

In FPI, Texas A&M would be favored by 1.0 on a neutral field; the Aggies are 15th and the Vols 17th. I’ve really come to enjoy Kelley Ford’s ratings and visuals – there the Vols would be favored by 0.2 points on a neutral field, Tennessee 15th and A&M 16th. You get the idea.

The game, of course, will be played in Knoxville, and that means it’s -3 for the Vols in Vegas as of 6:20 Saturday morning. We will indeed see just how much Knoxville is worth in a few hours.

This will be the fifth game of Josh Heupel’s tenure played in toss-up range, with the line at +/- 3. (An honorable mention to the 2021 Pittsburgh game, which closed at Vols +3.5.)

There’s actually a nice trend in these games in Heupel’s tenure, with the lines squeaking ever so slightly in Tennessee’s favor:

  • 2021 at Missouri +2.5, won 62-24 – the definitive “hello there” performance, which was followed by a 35-0 lead on South Carolina, which set up what became the first of many enormous football games…
  • 2021 Ole Miss +1.5, lost 31-26 – the Vols just missed their first real opportunity to get a ranked win under Heupel…
  • 2021 Kentucky -1, won 45-42 – but not the second
  • 2022 LSU -2.5, won 40-13 – a mammoth, program-changing performance that was then eclipsed by an even more mammoth, even more program-changing one seven days later

Heupel is 4-3 in one-possession games at Tennessee, and 3-1 in these toss-ups…where, obviously, two of them got very un-toss-up shortly after kickoff.

Historically, he also caught these earlier than his predecessors. Missouri was game five of his first season; the aforementioned Pitt game was week two. Jeremy Pruitt was +3 against the Gators at home in his fourth game. Butch Jones didn’t see a line of less than seven points either way until the Vanderbilt/Kentucky closer in his first season. And Derek Dooley’s first team didn’t see a single-digit line until November! That was -2 against Ole Miss, a game Tyler Bray and the Vols won 52-14. It was Tennessee’s best performance against the spread until that Mizzou game two years ago.

The question then becomes, what do you do from there? Going back through Phil Steele’s against the spread data, I’ve got Phillip Fulmer at 25-15 in his career in games between +/- 3 at kickoff. That’s pretty good! He was also especially good from 2003-07, when the Vols might not have had such a decisive talent advantage compared to the 90s. At the moment, 2023’s closest historical comparisons in SP+ are the 1991 (Miracle at South Bend) and 2003 Vol squads, the latter of which split the SEC East three ways with Florida and Georgia. From 2003-07, Fulmer went 13-7 in Vegas toss-ups, including a ridiculous 8-2 in 2006 and 2007.

The house usually wins; there’s not much shame in toss-ups behaving exactly that way. Johnny Majors was 3-3-1 at UT in these games during his last four seasons, including a pair of SEC Championships. The best news for Tennessee is what kind of games you’re getting into toss-up range now. Much like LSU last year – much like South Carolina two weeks ago – this one can also serve as a gateway to something even more next Saturday. I wouldn’t expect Tennessee to get in +3 territory in Tuscaloosa no matter what happens today. But considering our last three trips to Tuscaloosa went +24.5, +34, and +36? All of this continues to head in the right direction…and the Vols, of course, beat Bama last year at +9.

Today, all signs point to even in what should be a great day for college football. This Tennessee team has no unique experience in a really close game; if we’re just going by possessions, A&M played their first one-possession game last Saturday by virtue of a late field goal and a failed onside kick.

But both teams are already tested in meaningful games.

And there’s plenty of that to go around today.

Go Vols.

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Mr B
Mr B
7 months ago

This is a year where my confidence at home will be better than on the road. Especially for 3:30 game times or later. Go Vols!