Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series concludes today with Tennessee and Vanderbilt (9 a.m., ET). If you missed any of the 14 previews, you can read them here.

We can play both sides of the Tennessee fence, if you want.

Let’s start with the negative. Georgia State. BYU. Getting outscored 112-30 and losing all 3 games to the big rivals. Zero wins against ranked teams.

Now, the positive. Six-game winning streak. Eight wins total. Just 16.4 points allowed on average in the final 8 games (I subtracted Alabama’s touchdown when Jarrett Guarantano went rogue). A +3 win improvement for Jeremy Pruitt in Year 2. A top-10 recruiting class.

Did I leave out anything?

I suppose all of those things coupled with the fact that Tennessee lost some key pieces to the NFL (Darrell Taylor and Jauan Jennings being the most important ones), is why there hasn’t been out of control hype in Knoxville throughout this offseason. There’s at least some pushback. That’s why the Vols were a borderline Top 25 team in the polls, and that’s why there’s not a growing sense that they’ll stand in the way of Florida or Georgia in the SEC East.

Dare I say, expectations are about where they should be in Knoxville. That in itself feels like a win for Pruitt. Most teams that go winless in the SEC don’t cap off an 8-win season just 2 years later. Of course, Year 3 will be a totally different set of circumstances with a 10-game conference-only schedule and quarantines to account for.

Speaking of that …

What to make of this bizarre start

I’ll say this. There’s a chance that a month from now, we’ll have totally forgotten that Tennessee had a September practice in which a reported 44 players were unable to participate. Some of that was COVID-related quarantines:

Again, that could be an afterthought if Tennessee gets off to a good start. I’m not here to say it’ll absolutely prevent the Vols from being successful early on (I have them winning the opener). Honestly, none of us has seen an entire sport have to deal with something like this. This is uncharted territory.

But I can’t imagine any way in which it helps Pruitt’s squad. That’s what I come back to. At a time when teams are hoping to have some sort of routine with learning assignments and getting the muscle memory part of the game back after this strange offseason, having that many players sidelined won’t allow that to happen in the way Tennessee had probably originally hoped.

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Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.

What can overcome that? Players who find ways to stay disciplined during quarantine and after returning from quarantine. Coaches who successfully game plan and use that extra time to scout opponents wisely. Perhaps it’s as simple as catching an opponent when it can’t overcome those things.

If Tennessee looks like it forgot how to tackle in the opener, we’ll naturally wonder if this depleted camp had something to do with it. Welcome to 2020.

Jarrett Guarantano with the same OC will be …

Improved. I truly believe that. I don’t think he’ll be one of the SEC’s top 3 quarterbacks or anything like that, but I think we’ll see the best version of Guarantano. It’s been well documented that this is his first time at Tennessee in which he doesn’t have a new coordinator with a new playbook to learn. That in itself should help Guarantano process some of those reads a bit quicker.

If we’re being honest, though, I don’t think he has the ceiling of a Kellen Mond or even a Kyle Trask. At least not at this point of this career. I don’t know that the decision-making will ever get to the level where we see it for a month at a time. At this point, there’s at least some of the “he is what he is.” Guarantano is a tough kid who has been through a lot. I can’t sit here and say I have full confidence in him to start and excel every game of the 2020 season.

Entering Year 4 as a starter, we’re still waiting on him to have his first 3-touchdown game. He has 1 career rushing TD, which makes it hard to think that the scrambling game will ever be a legitimate part of his repertoire when blocks break down. He has 1 career game with 25 rushing yards.

The best-case scenario is that Guarantano becomes a guy who can avoid those devastating sacks/fumbles, keep his completion percentage high and stay healthy. Maybe that yards per attempt number can creep closer to 9.0 and we see Guarantano play with the sense of urgency that we saw at times down the stretch in 2020.

Go in with the right expectations for the Tennessee senior, and understand what he is as long as he’s running Jim Chaney’s offense.

Is there a Jauan Jennings on that roster?

Of course, Guarantano’s ceiling would be a bit higher if we knew his go-to target had a legitimate replacement. Jennings was the alpha dog in that locker room. His presence, time and again, was exactly what the Vols needed to not go into a total tailspin last year. His route-running was exceptional, and it allowed him to be a safety blanket of sorts for whoever was throwing passes for Tennessee.

With both Jennings and Marquez Callaway off to the NFL, Tennessee doesn’t return a single player who had multiple receiving touchdowns last year. Josh Palmer is expected to take on the role of lead wideout after recording 941 receiving yards on 57 catches over the past 2 seasons. He finished on a strong note last year with 16 catches for 247 yards in his final 3 games.

Maybe the next Jennings is somewhere in a freshman class that’s been getting plenty of buzz in fall camp. Jalin Hyatt and Malachi Wideman both made an early impression, as did Jimmy Holiday, Dee Beckwith and Jimmy Calloway. Obviously, none of them will be expected to individually account for the 59 catches and 969 receiving yards that Jennings had in 2019.

Pruitt loaded up on receivers in his 2020 class knowing there would be a lot of turnover. Could it be the difference that keeps Tennessee’s passing game afloat?

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at South Carolina (W)

Both teams know how important this opener is. It’s a winnable game that Pruitt and Will Muschamp would love to have under their belts knowing what awaits with this loaded schedule. Despite the quarantines, I’ll still take Tennessee to show up ready to roll on the road. I like the odds of Pruitt’s defense, which should be solid in the middle with promising young guys like Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, going sideline to sideline to shut down this new-look South Carolina offense with Mike Bobo. Eric Gray takes over in the second half in a close “first to 20” sort of game.

Week 2: vs. Mizzou (W)

If the Vols have a 2019 repeat, hey, who knows about this one. Perhaps Mizzou can catch Tennessee early enough before it finds its defensive identity. But I don’t expect that to happen. After a strong start from Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie, it’s the Vols’ ground attack that takes over down the stretch. Again, it’s a heavy dose of Gray behind that talented offensive line that puts Eli Drinkwitz’s SEC road debut out of reach.

Week 3: at Georgia (L)

Oh, the hype if we get 2-0 Georgia vs. 2-0 Tennessee. We need a showdown like this. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Georgia come out a bit slow fresh off the Auburn game and perhaps in an effort not to show Nick Saban the entire offense a week before the Alabama showdown. Bryce Thompson, rocking No. 0, gets interception No. 1 and quiets a reduced Georgia crowd before the half. But unlike the first 2 weeks, Georgia’s offense does the heavy lifting in the second half to put the game away. A long Demetris Robertson touchdown serves as the exclamation point on what’s easily Todd Monken’s best offensive half to date. Tennessee’s Georgia losing streak continues.

Week 4: vs. Kentucky (L)

You know what doesn’t seem fun? This 3-week stretch for Tennessee. This Kentucky game is going to be a challenge from start to finish because of how good the Wildcats are up front. This game follows a somewhat similar script to last year’s physical, low-scoring battle in which Pruitt’s defense once again gives Eddie Gran’s offense problems for most of the game. But this time, Terry Wilson leads a late drive to set up a walk-off field goal for a 20-17 victory in Knoxville. Mark Stoops improves to 2-6 against Tennessee.

Week 5: vs. Alabama (L)

Having to face Nick Saban after an Alabama loss to Georgia seems … unfair? This isn’t a revenge game so much as it is an “Alabama is angry” game. Against that decorated Tennessee offensive line, the Crimson Tide front 7 has its best performance of the year in Knoxville and prevents any sort of an upset from happening. Saban makes sure that a week removed from losing to a former assistant for the first time, he doesn’t fall to another. Tennessee can’t find an answer for Najee Harris and it’s 14 in a row for the Crimson Tide.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: at Arkansas (W)

For the first time in over a month, Tennessee is in the win column. This is the type of game when Chaney really lets the ground game do the heavy lifting. Ty Chandler gets in the mix in what turns out to be a fresher Tennessee team than the one that struggled against Alabama before the bye. As long as depth isn’t an issue with quarantines or opt outs, the Vols should take care of business at Arkansas to get back to .500.

Week 8: vs. Texas A&M (L)

Swing game. Big time. This could easily go to whichever team is healthiest. If all things are relatively equal, I like this matchup slightly better for A&M. A reduced road crowd will help Kellen Mond, who is 3-6 on the road in conference games under Jimbo Fisher. But I wonder about Mike Elko’s defense putting pressure on Tennessee to throw. That’s advantage A&M. In a low-scoring game that’s up for grabs in the 4th quarter, A&M gets the go-ahead score thanks to a Mond touchdown pass to Jalen Wydermyer. A late Guarantano interception seals it for the Aggies on the road.

Week 9: at Auburn (L)

Yet another swing game. I’m trying not to let my impressions of that 2018 Auburn disaster impact how I break down this game because both teams are much different 2 years later. Auburn was a mess offensively, Jeremy Pruitt completely out-coached Malzahn that day. Could that happen again? Sure. But this is exactly the type of game that we should see some interesting wrinkles with Anthony Schwartz. Two weeks removed from a bye with Malzahn eager for some revenge on Pruitt, this is going to be a diverse offensive game plan that he and Morris come up with. Auburn’s offense finds just enough ways to keep Tennessee on its heels and escapes with a win. Another close loss for the Vols rules out the possibility of a winning regular-season record.

Week 10: at Vanderbilt (W)

Tennessee finally put the clamps on the Commodores last year. That was against a Vandy squad that had 3 NFL-caliber players on offense. This year, with those guys gone and a new offense and an entirely new quarterback room, I’ll go with Tennessee having a big day defensively. Aubrey Solomon and Darel Middleton have career days stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback to fuel another 3-possession win against Vandy.

Week 11: vs. Florida (L)

Tennessee fans are pumped that Florida has to travel to face Tennessee in the cold this year. While I don’t expect this rare Florida-Tennessee clash in December to have quite the same feel as that famous 2001 showdown, I do believe it’ll be plenty entertaining. Florida will be playing for a division title, and Tennessee would love nothing more than to play spoiler. That nearly happens after some back and forth thanks to a 150-yard rushing day from Gray, but Kyle Trask keeps his cool with his back against the wall, and he silences a reduced capacity crowd at Neyland.

2020 projection: 4-6, 4th in SEC East


I had no intention of penciling Tennessee in for a losing record. I really didn’t. I could easily be dead wrong on this. I admit that now.

I don’t think there’s much separation between Kentucky and Tennessee. If the Vols win that game with my projections, they’d both be 5-5 and Tennessee would be 3rd in the East. But I have fewer questions about the Wildcats. That’s why I view that as a major potential swing game that could shape how this season goes in Knoxville.

But in this conference-only slate, yeah, I have legitimate concerns with how Tennessee will handle it. A 2-10 record vs. AP Top 25 foes in the past 3 years doesn’t bode well, nor does the aforementioned struggles against the rivals. I mean, 3-27 against Alabama, Florida and Georgia in the past decade screams “let’s see it before we believe it” with those 3 matchups.

And yeah, if I’m projecting today, I’d take Auburn, Texas A&M and Kentucky to win those matchups in 1-possession games. Those are obviously swing games that Tennessee can absolutely win if we see things like Guarantano emerge, Gray become an All-SEC back and edge rushers develop. If the Vols win 2 of those 3 games, that’ll suggest they’re taking the next step.

For all I know, that’s exactly what’s in store. Perhaps by midseason, I’ll be banging the drum for Pruitt to be SEC Coach of the Year for how he handled these atypical circumstances with such a daunting schedule. This has been a somewhat difficult team to figure out during the Pruitt era from week to week, and maybe a conservative preseason expectation will go up in smoke with a win against a rival or a 4-1 start heading into the bye week.

But for now, I’ll stay on the lower end of Tennessee’s 2020 potential.