SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Tennessee football in 2018
I have good news for Tennessee fans. It’s such good news that I’ll make a guarantee right here and now.
There’s no way 2018 will be worse than 2017.
The train wreck that was the 2017 season will not repeat itself, barring a massive scandal. Having experienced the year that was — losing to Florida on a last-second Hail Mary, failing to win an SEC game, having an unprecedented coaching search, etc. — is only going to make Tennessee fans better prepared for what’s in store.
The beauty of that is now, the expectations are off. No longer are we entering a season riding a wave of Butch Jones cliches not too far removed from a bowl win and a solid recruiting class.
Now, Jeremy Pruitt can begin his story at Tennessee. The first chapter might be rough on the field, and it will make plenty of Saturdays in Knoxville tough to stomach in the early going.
But at the very least, it simply cannot be as bad as last year.
2017 regular season record: 4-8 (0-8)
Do it to it, Pruitt
To those who are still hung up on the fact that Pruitt was publicly not Tennessee’s first choice, it doesn’t matter anymore. The idea of hiring the Alabama defensive coordinator came after a coaching search made for reality TV.
But Pruitt’s reality is that the job is his, and already, he’s owning it in every way. He’s already doing things the way that he wants. From not allowing assistant coaches to be regularly available to the media, to blasting his team and fans after a spring game, it’s Pruitt’s show. Clearly.
The refreshing aspect of Pruitt is going to be the honesty. In that regard, Tennessee did a complete 180 from Jones. Pruitt’s honesty will make him friends, and it’ll make him enemies. He doesn’t seem to care.
Pruitt is trying to establish a culture his way. Remember that culture and tradition are very different things. Tennessee has the latter, and the former has been a disaster in recent memory.
That’s going to be the most noticeable difference in Year 1 of the Pruitt era.
The Tyson Helton experiment
I’m fascinated by the move Pruitt made to bring Helton in as the offensive coordinator. Tee Martin didn’t want to be the coordinator at his alma mater, and it’s Helton who left USC for Tennessee. It’s a bold move for someone who’s never been a coordinator at a Power 5 school.
That’s not to discount the job that Helton did as the quarterbacks coach at USC. But it feels like Tennessee is banking on the guy who developed Sam Darnold as the savior of the offense. I say “savior” because he got paid like one. Shelling out $1.205 million is a big-time investment.
Helton is the highest-paid member of Pruitt’s staff because he has the toughest job. He inherited a unit that ranked dead last in the SEC and No. 117 in FBS in scoring offense. It’ll be Helton’s responsibility to build up Keller Chryst and Jarrett Guarantano, both of whom have plenty of areas for improvement.
Besides that, Helton also needs to get Tennessee out of this habit of not maximizing its talent at the skill positions. Stories like Alvin Kamara and John Kelly need to be few and far between. It’s Helton who has to turn Tennessee into the place where they find diamonds in the rough, not where they throw diamonds in the trash.
OK, that’s my first and last trash can reference.
Strange new territory for the Vols
This will be the first time since 2014 that Tennessee isn’t starting in the Top 25 on the heels of a bowl win. It felt like the Vols were stuck in this cycle of having all of this preseason hype, then watching it fade in the middle of the season, only to have it all come back after winning a random bowl game.
Needless to say, 2017 finally ended that cycle.
Nobody is talking about Tennessee as a legitimate threat to win the division or even earn a top-25 spot at some point in the year. There won’t be constant chatter about firing a coach or which skill player is considering transferring.
Call me crazy, but I think that’s going to be really refreshing for Tennessee fans. It was a good time to enter a new phase and reset expectations. I don’t necessarily want to compare it to the start of the Jones era because Pruitt actually has a realistic attitude and he won’t sugarcoat anything.
But this isn’t the worst state to be in entering a season. Tennessee fans know that all too well.
Week 1: vs. West Virginia* (L)
Do I think that Tennessee has the defensive pieces to stop Will Grier in Game 1 of the Pruitt era? No. But I do I think that the Vols can at least prevent the Mountaineers from hanging 50? Sure. Let’s not pretend like West Virginia’s defense set the world on fire, either. This was the No. 90 scoring defense last year. There should be opportunities for Tennessee to score. I’ll still take West Virginia to win by multiple scores in Grier’s hometown, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vols’ offense already looked better than last year’s (that’s not saying much).
Week 2: vs. East Tennessee State (W)
Tennessee won 1 game by more than 14 points last year, and it was to an FCS squad. Let’s just say I’m even more confident in this year’s offense to accomplish that feat when ETSU rolls in.
Week 3: vs. UTEP (W)
I won as many games as UTEP last year.
Week 4: vs. Florida (L)
This has the makings of a fun new chapter of this rivalry. Not that the Jones/Jim McElwain battles weren’t fun, but they were more in like a “hey, let’s point and laugh at how awful this is” type of fun. This will be fun in a “hey, let’s watch a great defensive mind and a great offensive mind battle it out” type of fun. That said, I think Florida has more ingredients for a 2018 bounce-back than Tennessee.
Week 5: at Georgia (L)
I’m here for the Pruitt-Georgia rivalry that was sparked by Aaron Murray’s comments. This one will have a little juice heading in, but ultimately it’ll serve as a reminder of how far Pruitt has to go to reach Kirby Smart’s level.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: at Auburn (L)
I mean, getting Auburn and Alabama as a crossover draw is brutal. Pruitt won’t complain about that, though. I’ll be interested to see how Tennessee responds coming off the bye. Having a stretch of at Georgia, at Auburn and vs. Alabama is as brutal as it gets, but with that bye sandwiched in there, at least Tennessee will have a chance to potentially get healthy. Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Tennessee rolls into Jordan-Hare and pushes Auburn to the edge.
Week 8: vs. Alabama (L)
Ah, the Pruitt-Saban storylines heading into this one will be a treat. For now, it’s not a very intriguing on-the-field matchup. Tennessee’s only hope for a spark might be watching Nigel Warrior take a Tua Tagovailoa interception to the house. Well, maybe 3 of those would make this close.
Week 9: at South Carolina (L)
So if Tennessee lost this one, that’d be 14 consecutive SEC losses, starting with the Vandy loss to close 2016. At least according to my projections. It’s hard to project what kind of strides the Vols’ defense will make because sitting here 2 months out, this feels like a game in which Rico Dowdle should run wild. Maybe Kyle Phillips and the Vols’ front prevents that, but in Columbia, that’ll be a tough thing to do against South Carolina’s up-tempo offense.
Week 10: vs. Charlotte (W)
The losing streak is over! Marquez Callaway and the Vols skill players shouldn’t have any problems making big plays against a Conference-USA team that went 1-11 last year.
Week 11: vs. Kentucky (W)
Vols fans would prefer it if they didn’t have to wait until Week 11 for the first SEC win of the Pruitt era. But unfortunately, the wait is long with how tough the conference schedule starts out. Tennessee finally contains the run against an SEC team with an actual ground game. It serves as the “see, it’s working” game for Pruitt’s defense.
Week 12: vs. Mizzou (L)
This should be a good week for Helton’s offense to get a few things going. The Vols will try and control the clock to keep Lock off the field. That’ll prove to be easier said than done. Lock delivers a big-time performance to clinch bowl eligibility for Mizzou, which knocks the Vols from postseason contention.
Week 13: at Vanderbilt (W)
Instead of a bowl game to go off on a high note to raise expectations, Tennessee instead gets to beat up on its in-state rival, which has won the past two and taken 4 of the past 6. I actually think this winds up being a blowout. The Vols play like a team without expectations, and everything clicks on both sides of the ball. The win gives Tennessee an improved win total from 2017, and it sets the new expectation for 2019.
*at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte
2018 regular season projection: 5-7 (2-6)
Final Standings: 5th in SEC East
So here’s a thought that’ll make Tennessee fans sick. If Tennessee goes 5-7 in 2018 as I projected, the program will have missed the postseason for the sixth time since Nick Saban took over at Alabama. Saban’s team, of course is the favorite to win what would be his sixth national title since arriving in Tuscaloosa.
My point is not to say that Alabama is better than Tennessee. Rather, that’s how much separation there is between the Vols and the top of the college football mountain right now. This is where the Pruitt era will start from.
I’m curious what the patience will look like from the fan standpoint. Right now, Pruitt can do no wrong. After all, games aren’t being played yet. Can Vols fans — for lack of a better phrase — trust the process with Pruitt? Or will there be people burying him if he starts 0-5 in conference play?
Only time will tell us the answer to that. There are plenty more tough times ahead as Tennessee begins this climb. Vols fans had better find themselves a comfy chair and relax.
It’s gonna take awhile.