Tennessee football: 5 ways the Vols will measure success in 2020
Last started in damaging fashion. Tennessee followed a historic loss to Georgia State with a blown lead in the final seconds of regulation and an overtime loss to BYU. A 1-4 start had UT fans fearing a 9-loss season. But improbably the Vols turned it around, winning 7 of their last 8, including a season-ending 6-game win streak. They also snapped a 3-year bowl-less streak, beating Indiana 23-22 in the Gator Bowl.
By most accounts, Year 2 of the Jeremy Pruitt era was a success. They won 3 more games than the previous season. They also picked up a top 10 recruiting class. Tennessee football appears to be on the rise.
Looking to the 2020 season, let’s examine 5 ways that the Vols will measure success during the upcoming season.
1. Win at least 9 games
Ten wins feels like the absolute ceiling for Tennessee in 2020. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But with a schedule that as always includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, plus a road trip to Oklahoma, getting to 10 wins would be a tall order. Remember, Tennessee hasn’t won 10 games since 2007.
The Vols had golden opportunities to win at least 10 games in 2015 and 2016. The East was as down as it had been in decades, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage, winning 9 games each year.
Tennessee went from 5 wins in 2018 to 8 wins in 2019. Going backward in the win column would be … well … a step back. Winning 8 games again wouldn’t necessarily mean the program isn’t improving, but I’m not sure Tennessee would consider 2020 a success if they stand pat.
2. Get at least 1 win over the Big 3
Since 2010, Tennessee’s performance against their 3 biggest rivals has been flat out lousy: 0-10 against Alabama, 1-9 against Florida. 2-8 against Georgia. Mathematics tells us that’s a 3-27 record. They haven’t beaten the Crimson Tide, Gators or Bulldogs since 2016.
But there are reasons for optimism that things could change in 2020. The Vols get Alabama and Florida at Neyland Stadium. The schedule also moves the Georgia game to the middle of November. Tennessee was certainly a better team in November 2019 than they were in September and early October. If that form holds true again, the Vols would be better suited for a late-season matchup in Athens.
The Vols haven’t won a division title since 2007. If Tennessee is going to get back to the point that they are competing for trips to Atlanta, they have to find ways to win at least some of the biggest conference games on their schedule.
3. Win all the games you are supposed to win
Back in Tennessee’s glory days, they rarely lost the games in which they were big favorites. Yes, the 1996 Memphis game is one of the exceptions, but it shows how rare defeats of that nature were for Tennessee during the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-2008).
Go back to 2016 to see how devastating losing games you are supposed to win can be to a program. Tennessee was heads and shoulders better than South Carolina and Vanderbilt that year. But the loss to the Gamecocks knocked Tennessee out of the race to win the East while the defeat at the hands of the Commodores kept the Vols from playing in the Sugar Bowl for the first time in a generation. Butch Jones never recovered and was fired a year later.
Tennessee’s 2020 schedule certainly has some tough matchups, but Troy, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, among others, on the docket need to be Ws. And even when Kentucky has some of their historically best teams and Tennessee has some of their historically worst, the Vols almost always find ways to win those games (33 of the past 35 to be exact).
The Vols must beat teams of that caliber (and worse) to a successful 2020 season.
4. Get more players selected in the NFL Draft
The NFL Draft in April will have some Tennessee representation. The Vols had 5 alums at the recent NFL Combine. Defensive end/outside linebacker Darrell Taylor will likely be the first player from Tennessee chosen next month.
The draft used to be a mini-Volunteer reunion. From 1998-2003, an impressive 46 Vols heard their names called. But except for the 2017 draft in which 6 Vols were picked, it’s been feast or famine for the past decade.
As long as his health is in order, offensive lineman Trey Smith is a likely 1st-round draft pick in 2021. If Pruitt and his staff can continue to develop talent, Smith won’t be alone.
5. Find your quarterback for 2021
Jarrett Guarantano is returning for his 5th and final season on Rocky Top. His time in the orange and white has been up and down, to say the least, and there is certainly no guarantee that he remains the starter throughout the 2020 campaign. Pruitt and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney would like to find out this fall who will be their quarterback of the future.
Redshirt junior J.T. Shrout, sophomore Brian Maurer and incoming freshman Harrison Bailey each want to be the guy. Bailey is the one most point to as Tennessee’s future at the most important position on the field, but he has yet to suit up for even a practice. Tennessee would rather not go into 2021 with uncertainty at quarterback.