What Can We Expect Now?

What Can We Expect Now?

Ye olde GRT Expected Win Total Machine has been on quite the ride. Expectations at the start of fall camp hovered around 6.9 wins, rising to 7.2 last week with Trey Smith and Aubrey Solomon eligible and kickoff knocking on the door. But in the aftermath of the Georgia State game (and after removing a few entries that gave the Vols an 80% chance to beat Chattanooga and a 0% chance against the rest of the field, which might be allowed by next week!), things are…less exciting.

The average expectation among our readers is now 3.92 wins on the year. If we’re still allowed to round up, that would put the Vols at 4-8, 5-7, and 4-8 the last three years.

No one’s projection was worth anything against Georgia State, but looking at things through more objective eyes is – hopefully, in this case – still helpful. SP+ and FPI were both high on the Vols coming into the year due to plenty of returning experience. No one lost like Tennessee last week, but several of our opponents didn’t flatter themselves either. As a result, here’s the projected margin of victory for Tennessee in SP+ and FPI going forward:

at Florida-15.4-12.5
Mississippi St-7.6-2.7
at Alabama-32.7-25.3
South Carolina0.40.3
at Kentucky-5-4
at Missouri-9.8-3.5

Both models have the Vols favored by at least 5.5 points in four remaining games, plus a clear toss-up with South Carolina. From there, it gets trickier: the two models continue to disagree on Mississippi State and Missouri, with FPI now listing the trip to Lexington as Tennessee’s most difficult game after the usual suspects from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama.

The date with the Gamecocks is of obvious importance from seven weeks away. Not only might it be one of Tennessee’s best chances to scratch and claw their way back to six wins, but if things go bad against BYU on Saturday it could become the game that eliminates any final hope of bowl eligibility in October.

But first, the Cougars. Vegas still likes the Vols in the neighborhood of a field goal, and both advanced statistical models like Tennessee by more than that; SP+ gives Tennessee a 70% chance of victory, which is what I gave us in the Expected Win Total Machine before the Georgia State loss. So far our readers this week give the Vols a 42.9% chance of victory against the Cougars (again, after removing the zeroes).

I’m more curious than anything, about everything. How many people will show up? How soon would booing commence? And the bigger picture questions: what percentage of Tennessee’s problems from last week are easier to fix – alignment, assignment, etc. – and what percentage of them can’t get fixed any time soon, because they’re the same problems from last season without enough new faces to solve them? And if the latter list is longer, what percentage of fight does this team have in its tank?

There’s some “most important game since ____________” floating around. A couple thoughts about that. The last “most important game” we played was against Georgia in 2017; its importance became the end of the Butch Jones era, not the beginning of any short-term good. The ones before that were all in 2016 with stakes both higher and more tangible. You can argue the long-term stakes are really high for Tennessee right now, and that’s true…but those won’t be ultimately decided by what the Vols do or don’t do against BYU. Tennessee was always playing the long game here. We’ve played games of actual importance recently enough, and been through enough change for longer than that to think anything program-related is going to get decided on Saturday.

In the short-term, this game matters a lot. It might also help us see how long the long-term really is.

If Vegas and the statistical models are right, the Vols will course correct, at least this week, and our scenarios will improve. Or if what we saw defensively for much of last season and the Georgia State game shows up against BYU, we’ll lean hard into the abyss and its enveloping apathy. This is a week when we’ll either be forced to embrace a worst-case scenario, or find a Tennessee team capable of making the best of it. I’m genuinely curious to see which way it goes.

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I think a lot of people are still going to show up for a couple of reasons: 1) BEER! and 2) Most of these tickets were purchased long before the debacle last weekend so it is already a sunk cost. The real question is how many of those people (me included) will still be there if things aren’t going so well in the third quarter. It may be sub-O&W Game-level attendance at that point. And then, if we were to lose to the Cougars, the UTC crowd would be the smallest crowd any of us have seen in our lifetimes.