The fact that Tennessee is predicted to finish around .500 by ESPN’s Football Power Index is hardly surprising. That’s an in-your-face sign of just how far the program has fallen in the past decade.
After the Vols finished 4-8 last season, 6-6 would be considered progress by most fans and analysts. The Vols have holes to fill at most every position. Finding a team strength is almost as difficult as recalling just how many cliches former coach Butch Jones used as he ran the Vols into the ground.
ESPN's FPI has updated its preseason numbers for the 2018 season. Here are the projected win/loss records and percentage of winning the league for every SEC team: pic.twitter.com/K8eA0vNC3R
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) April 5, 2018
Here are some serious questions that will have to be answered to even reach a modest 6-6 record:
Who will be UT’s starting quarterback?
Jarrett Guarantano has to be considered the leader as of now. However, the sophomore didn’t do anything last season to make first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt feel confident Guarantano can be a top-flight signal caller in the SEC. Graduate transfer Keller Chryst will enroll from Stanford this summer. He’ll be eligible this fall and could surpass Guarantano as the starter. It’s still a bit puzzling why Quinten Dormady decided to transfer. He might have been a better fit for UT’s new offense than any of the other candidates.
How quickly can the Vols become more physical on the offensive line?
The Vols were more about finesse than power on offense under Jones. That won’t likely be the case under Pruitt. Expect Pruitt’s offense to be more physical, which might actually be a better fit for some of UT’s offensive lineman, especially Trey Smith, who has been held out of spring practice with an undisclosed medical condition. Smith is expected to return by this season. However, UT’s other offensive linemen were recruited to play in Jones’ spread attack. Pruitt can’t just instantly make them more physical, especially since many are undersized compared to what Pruitt would prefer.
How quickly can the Vols adapt to Pruitt’s 3-4 defense?
The Vols were primarily a 4-2-5 defense with a nickel back on the field for most of the game under Jones. That figures to change this season. Pruitt is known for his aggressive, physical 3-4 defense. The change won’t be easy. However, Pruitt is known for keeping his defense simple. That should ease the transition somewhat. Still, Pruitt won’t have the type of players he’s used to working with. He’ll have to recruit them.
How fast can the culture change?
The Vols were known mostly for bad attitudes, disgruntled players and injuries under Jones. That all has to change quickly. UT will need some of its key players to step up and lead under Pruitt. He has to get those players to believe in him, which wasn’t the case with Jones. Those players have every right to be distrusting of whoever is in charge. Pruitt has also said he’ll limit full tackling in practice. That should help limit injuries. A new strength and conditioning program should also help.
How many mistakes will Pruitt make as a first-year head coach?
They’re going to happen. Just like any first-year head coach, Pruitt will make mistakes. Will those mistakes cost UT a game or two — or more? How quickly will Pruitt learn from those mistakes? Pruitt might become a great coach, but there’s certainly no guarantee that will happen just because he was a really good coordinator.
In conclusion, the Vols should be happy with a 6-6 record, as sad as that may seem for UT fans that can harken back to better days. That would make the Vols bowl eligible, allow UT extra practices for the bowl game and give fans some hope. There won’t be much room for error with this team. While 7 regular-season wins is certainly possible, a mere 5 wins and another losing season is also a stark reality.
UT’s schedule won’t do them any favors. The Vols open with West Virginia, which has an explosive offense led by former UF QB Will Grier. One would expect two wins against East Tennessee State and Texas-El Paso. Then, things get interesting with four tough opponents as the Vols host Florida and play at Georgia, before a bye week. Then, the Vols play at Auburn before hosting Alabama. Sheesh.
It’s quite possible the Vols could be 2-5 at that point.
Then the pressure would be on to close strong against South Carolina, Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. Other than Charlotte, none of those games are guaranteed wins. Suddenly, 6-6 seems a bit lofty.