SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Tennessee football in 2019
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Tennessee and the SEC East. Coming Sunday: Vanderbilt.
Some good, some bad, some ugly. That’s how I’d describe Year 1 of the Jeremy Pruitt era.
It didn’t yield the bowl berth many wanted, but the Vols did beat a pair of Top 25 teams and at least perform adequately against the cream of the SEC East crop, Georgia.
But there were also disasters against Florida, Mizzou and Vandy, all of which might be better this season.
Now, everyone wants to know how much better Tennessee got this offseason. We know, according to Pruitt’s scales, that the undersized Vols went from having 2 offensive linemen over 300 pounds to now having 15 at 3 bills. We also know that the Vols replaced Tyson Helton with Jim Chaney, who produced a pair of elite offenses the last 2 years he spent at Georgia.
We don’t know what 2019 holds for Tennessee, but we think that the program is as good a bet as any in America to improve its 5 wins from 2018.
Well, at least I do.
2018 record: 5-7 (2-6), 7th in SEC East
Jim Chaney is here to save the day
Speaking of Chaney, a reunion in Knoxville seemed like exactly what he and the Vols needed. After Helton left for Western Kentucky, Pruitt landed as big a fish as he could have in the offensive coordinator market.
I thought Chaney was underappreciated by Georgia the past couple of years. I think many fans took for granted how many mouths there were to feed in Athens. Still, a 24-5 mark with such a dominant 2-year stretch against the division suggests that Chaney is ready to carve up some more SEC East defenses.
The question is how Jarrett Guarantano handles his 4th offensive coordinator and 4th system in as many years. All signs from him and from camp suggest that the process is going extremely well. We won’t know until SEC play, but there’s a reason so many people are high on Guarantano having a breakout season.
The guy Tennessee shelled out nearly $5 million for the next 3 years to land is a big part of that.
Can the defense make that all-important Year 2 step?
From all the places Pruitt coached defenses at — Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, Hoover High, etc. — I wondered how he was going to handle being at a clear disadvantage on that side of the ball.
Darrell Taylor, Tennessee’s 2018 Team MVP, felt like a microcosm of the defense. He showed flashes and high upside — nobody returning in the SEC had more sacks than Taylor’s 8 last year — but wasn’t as consistent as Pruitt probably hoped.
Can Taylor and the Vols’ defense put it all together? The Vols return 76% of last year’s production on defense, including leading tackler Daniel Bituli and all-name team lifer Nigel Warrior. They should be at the center of another step up after at least leading the defense to levels of mediocrity last year (No. 54 against the run was a strong Year 1 sign).
Pruitt’s defensive prowess should be on display this year. But I’d be surprised if this group looked like a finished product already.
Beware of false confidence
The more I thought about it, the more I hated the idea of overanalyzing Tennessee’s win total this year. Well, as long as it’s at least 6.
We always want to do this thing with Year 2 coaches at rebuilding programs where we say “X number of wins would be progress.” I think this year’s Tennessee team could win 8 regular-season games and not show much progress. I also think they can win 6 games and show a ton of progress.
What do I mean? This schedule sets up extremely well. Not having a Power 5 nonconference opponent helps, as does only having 4 road games. It also helps that Tennessee ranks No. 2 in America in percentage of returning production. In a typical year, that won’t happen. The Vols had massive roster turnover with the coaching transition.
That combination sets up a somewhat atypical set of circumstances. That’s why I wouldn’t get caught up in whether it’s 7 wins or 8. I want to see how Tennessee handles itself against Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mizzou. That’s what’s going to indicate progress. Last year, those teams outscored Tennessee by an average of 30.5 points per game.
If Tennessee is heading into a bowl game with 8 wins but those 4 games don’t look any different, I’m questioning Pruitt more than I did after Year 1. We’ve seen Year 2 mirages in recent memory (2016 Nebraska, 2016 Florida).
Beware of it this year, too.
Week 1: vs. Georgia State (W)
A 2-10 team from the Sun Belt? Rocky Top enjoys every bit of Chaney’s debut. Second debut.
Week 2: vs. BYU (W)
BYU beat 5 Power 5 teams in the past 3 seasons, including that stunner at Wisconsin last year. And after opening the season against Utah, getting up to speed won’t be an issue. But do I expect the Cougars to roll into Knoxville and pull off the upset? No, because an inexperienced BYU defense struggles to slow down Jauan Jennings and the Vols’ air attack.
Week 3: vs. Chattanooga (W)
I need to tweak what I said earlier about which games matter and which don’t. This is the type of game that I want to see Tennessee impose its will on the offensive line and dominate for 60 minutes. This should be a big Ty Chandler game. Well, at least before the reserves take over.
Week 4: at Florida (L)
It was a bloodbath in Tennessee last year. You can’t turn the ball over like that and beat a team like Florida. While I think the size improvements up front will bode well for the Vols in keeping Guarantano upright, I still question how that line will stay in front of Todd Grantham’s defense. A setback heading into the bye week brings the Vols back to Earth a touch.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: vs. Georgia (L)
A Chaney revenge game? Sure, let’s call it that. With a bye week, he’ll have plenty of tricks up his sleeve (opening play flea-flicker maybe?). This will be a trendy upset pick, but I still think Jake Fromm has learned how to thrive in hostile environments. He makes enough plays to keep Georgia’s streak of SEC East victories alive.
Week 7: vs. Mississippi State (L)
This will be a great measuring stick for Pruitt. Both teams have 2nd-year coaches who want to make that step up after an oftentimes frustrating Year 1. In a thriller, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a well-rested MSU team wear down Tennessee. Joe Moorhead’s offense clicks at the perfect time and he picks up a huge road win in Knoxville.
Week 8: at Alabama (L)
To Pruitt’s credit, last year’s team didn’t lose 3 in a row. But this year’s team will have a difficult time getting through that 3-week stretch coming off the bye. On the bright side, I think Tennessee’s defense has a better chance of preventing Tua Tagovailoa from throwing touchdowns at will. We could even see an Alontae Taylor interception or a strip sack from Henry To’oto’o (that would sting for Alabama fans). But for 60 minutes? Tennessee isn’t on Alabama’s level yet.
Week 9: vs. South Carolina (W)
This would make for a perfect time to stop the bleeding. A game that Tennessee should have won last year flips in its favor. Why? The Vols’ secondary plays its best game. Jake Bentley struggles on the road against an improved defensive backfield and the Vols finally find themselves on the right side of an SEC nail-biter.
Week 10: vs. UAB (W)
I’d be a little higher on UAB’s chances of pulling off an upset if it returned more than a stunningly low 36% of its production from last year’s 11-win squad. But the Blazers rank dead last among FBS teams in that department. It’ll show in Knoxville.
Week 11: at Kentucky (W)
While I believe the Cats are going to be better than people think, I also think Tennessee is due for its first road win of 2019. Guarantano is settled into Chaney’s system enough to pick on Kentucky’s inexperienced secondary. I mean, Guarantano was good enough to beat last year’s Kentucky defense and he returns essentially everyone from that group. Chaney dials up another masterful game plan to beat the Cats and bowl eligibility is clinched.
Week 12: Bye
Week 13: at Mizzou (L)
Do you think Barry Odom will have his team fired up to play Tennessee after he accused the Vols’ coaching staff of trying to poach his players following the bowl ban announcement? I do. On Senior Day, the Tigers make another statement against Tennessee.
Week 14: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
The streak ends. After 3 years of embarrassment, Vandy’s longest winning streak against the Vols since 1926 comes to an end. Guarantano gets the protection he needs to pick apart a vulnerable Vandy defense. It turns into a bit of a shootout, but this time, Tennessee finally has the defensive pieces in place to stop the Commodores late. Seven wins and the end of an ugly in-state skid is worth celebrating.
2019 projection: 7-5 (3-5, 5th in SEC East)
Perspective, perspective, perspective.
I want to see Tennessee not get discouraged if its start is rough. Can a team that’s had no shortage of disappointment the past couple years keep it together if it winds up being an 0-4 start to SEC play? It would be an interesting crossroads for Pruitt.
But imagine if that start happens and Tennessee pushes Georgia and Florida for all 60 minutes. That, coupled with winning 4-of-5 to end the season and perhaps even a bowl win, would get the hype train rolling in a hurry for 2020. The Vols would be a likely Top 25 team, especially if Guarantano were to return.
This was never going to be a quick flip. Tough times are still coming. Pruitt’s defense isn’t a finished product. But as the blue-chip recruits like To’oto’o, Darnell Wright, Wanya Morris and others get involved immediately this year, one has to think the arrow will still be pointing up for the Vols’ future.
Life could be a whole lot worse in Knoxville.