Anyone who has followed Tennessee football this century doesn’t need a reminder of how poorly things have gone for this program recently. Since the 2001 SEC Championship Game, an absolute travesty that saw the second-ranked and heavily-favored Vols lose by double digits to a three-loss LSU team that they dominated earlier in the season, there hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer about in Knoxville. Here's some "highlights":
- National Championship winning coach and Vol legend Phillip Fulmer presided over two losing seasons in a four years and was shown the door at the end of 2008.
- Tennessee hired what they thought would be an up and comer in Lane Kiffin before the 2009 season, only to see him bolt for USC in the middle of the night 13 months later.
- They then whiffed horribly on back-to-back hires with Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, the former who was more in over his head than a drowning toddler, and the latter who so far surpassed the previous record for coach speak that he’ll never be approached by anyone ever in the history of sports.
Now it’s Jeremy Pruitt’s turn to try and revive the once-proud Vols, and he’ll take his first step in that attempt Saturday's season opener against West Virginia in Charlotte. The Mountaineers are ten point favorites and are led by one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Will Grier, a man who once broke my heart worse than every girl who rejected me in high school with a 61 yard miracle on fourth and long during his time with Florida.
Here’s all we know about Tennessee this season:
I don’t care if Jeremy Pruitt has never been a head coach before, he’s an upgrade over Butch Jones.
The lone positive of the Butch Jones-era was that he significantly improved the talent on the Vol roster from where it was when he took over before the 2013 season. Other than that, there's really nothing, particularly when you consider that the disastrous 2017 season can be laid directly at Butch’s feet. The Florida game was coaching malfeasance, and it ended up being the last straw for the entire team, who quickly came to the conclusion that this guy was full of crap, which led to them tuning him out, and eventually, quitting on the season. It was really telling when multiple players started sharing/liking criticism of him on social media. I have no idea if Pruitt will be a better game coach, but he’ll at least go after players and demand excellence and betterment, particularly in front of the media. We won’t have to hear “champions of life” or “five star hearts” or “the best bye week we’ve had here in a long time” from his mouth. Butch’s act got stale very quickly; Pruitt’s, for now, is fresh.
The Vols have 13 returning starters from a team that was ranked in the Top 25 to start last season
Yes, yes, preseason rankings are nothing more than opinions without evidence, but objective observers looked at last year’s Vol team on paper and expected them to be able to compete for the SEC East title. That obviously didn’t happen, but I don’t think it was because a lack of talent. If Butch doesn’t screw up the Florida game, then I think the Vols go 8-4 again and we could be looking at 2018 as Butch’s sixth year, as incredible as that sounds. Instead, everything spiraled out of control after that game, which eventually led to the worst season in program history.
We still don’t know who the starting quarterback will be because Pruitt is keeping everyone in the dark, but I don’t think the Keller Chryst/Jarrett Guarantano question is changing the outcome of the season all that much. Regardless, the Tennessee offense can’t be much worse than it was last season, considering they once went three straight games without scoring an offensive touchdown. Jauan Jennings's return from injury should help the team at receiver, and hopefully the Vols will find a way to involve the explosive Marquez Callaway in the offense more, a guy who burnt Georgia Tech for 115 receiving yards and two touchdowns in last year’s opener, his only highlight of the year because I guess he borrowed Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak and was never heard from again. Was it the scheme? Or was it that he wasn’t actually that good in the first place? We’ll have a definitive answer this year as I’m throwing out everything about the 2017 Vols because of how poorly the team was coached.
I can’t decide which stat tells the story of the 2017 Tennessee Vol offense better, the fact that Brandon Johnson was their leading receiver with only 482 yards, or that they finished with 3,493 total offensive yards, only 171 more yards than the 3,323 yards they punted for.
The offensive line has been a problem since the Dooley era, and besides Trey Smith, who was just medically cleared to play due to blood clots, I don’t feel great about anyone in that unit. Drew Richmond is the most experienced returner, with 13 starts, but he’s shown to be at best an average offensive lineman. Pruitt has preached winning the line of scrimmage and physicality, but the offense won’t reach it’s potential if the line sucks as bad as it has the last decade.
The potential for poor line play is the argument for starting Guarantano, as he’s the more mobile of the two QBs, and whoever is standing back their might be running for their life half the time. It’s up in the air about whether or not new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, the former USC QB coach, is going to be a good play caller. He had the privilege of coaching Sam Darnold during his two years at Southern Cal, and a player as talented as Darnold can make any coaching staff look competent. The only thing we learned about Guarantano last season is that he could take a pounding, and Chryst was a below average college QB during his career at Stanford. In 23 games over three seasons, he threw for 19 touchdowns, 1926 yards, and completed less than 56% of his passes. Helton has never had this much responsibility with this much unknown at quarterback.
As shaky as the offense is could be, I’m actually pretty high on their defensive potential. Despite all the talent, that side of the ball underachieved massively in 2017. Their only highlight was Rashaan Gaulden’s double birds after Daniel Bituli’s interception return against Alabama when they were getting their ass beat like every antagonist in a Steven Segal film.
Daniel Bituli, last season’s leading tackler and most consistent defender, is back, as well as a group of talented upperclassmen who haven’t lived up to their potential. Every starter is an upperclassman with the exception of one of the cornerback spots, which will be filled by one of two freshman, Alontae Taylor or Bryce Thompson. The rest of the defensive starters are all names you’ve heard before; Darrell Taylor, Quart’e Sapp, Darrin Kirkland Jr, Shy Tuttle, Nigel Warrior (great name!), Micah Abernathy, Johnathan Kongbo, Alexis Johnson Jr, Kyle Phillips, etc. It’s the last opportunity for many of them to leave their mark on this program. Pruitt is a defensive coach, and he’s been able to get the most out of the talented players he coached at both Alabama and Florida State. Starting to right the ship on that side of the ball should be the easiest and most obvious improvement on this team during Pruitt’s first year.
The schedule couldn’t be more brutal
After opening with West Virginia in Charlotte, the Vols get two cupcakes (ETSU, UTEP), before a daunting five-games-in-six-weeks stretch that goes like this: Florida, at #3 Georgia, bye week, at #9 Auburn, #1 Alabama, and at South Carolina. Sheesh. They could very easily lose all five of those games, and if they get beat on Saturday, a 2-6 record heading into November is very possible. Their last four (Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri, and at Vanderbilt) all appear winnable, until you remember that Kentucky has been improving every year under Mark Stoops, Missouri is a dark horse contender in the East with Drew Lock, perhaps the best quarterback in the entire conference, and that Vanderbilt has beaten Tennessee by double digits the last two years. I don’t think 3-9 is in play, but they do have nine legitimate loseable games on the schedule.
So if I had to predict their record going through the schedule, I do it this way:
West Virginia: Loss. The Vols have too many questions on offense, particularly for this early in the season. The defense would have to play the game of their lives and that still might not be enough, as the Mountaineers are going to be able to put up points regardless of the opponent.
Florida: Win. A couple things in Tennessee’s favor:
- The Vols were clearly the more talented team last year when these teams played, and the only reason they lost was because Butch Jones was completely incompetent
- The game is in Knoxville
- Florida’s starting quarterback is Feleipe Franks. Not scary.
- It’s the first game in their six week gauntlet, and they won’t exactly be worn down from the previous two weeks of playing UTEP and ETSU.
@ Georgia: Loss. The Bulldogs are a national title contender playing at home against a team they spanked 41-0 the previous year.
@ Auburn: Loss. Tough road game. The bye week before could help, as long as it’s not one of those Butch Jones “best bye week we’ve ever had here” bye weeks were you come out the next week and crap the bed against South Carolina and score no touchdowns.
Alabama: Loss. The Vols haven’t beaten the Tide since 2006, and unfortunately, it won’t happen this year, either.
@ South Carolina: Loss. I’m not a Will Muschamp guy at all, despite all the praise he got coming off last year’s 9 win season in Year 2 with the Gamecocks. Prediction: Muschamp has already peaked at South Carolina. In Year 2 at Florida he won 11 games and looked like he was the next great coach in the SEC. He then followed that up by winning 10 games the next two years and getting fired. I’m not convinced he and his beer gut are going to work long term at South Carolina, but that doesn't change the fact that he, as a head coach, is somehow 6-0 against Tennessee. That bad juju, combined with the fact that it’s a South Carolina home game, and that it’s the fifth straight emotional, high level, physical game for this Tennessee team tips the scales in the favor of South Carolina.
Kentucky: Win. From 1985-2017, Tennessee lost to Kentucky just twice. I’m just betting on that trend continuing.
Missouri: Loss. The Tigers return 9 starters from an offense that scored 45 points or more in their last six games, all victories. Drew Lock is probably the best quarterback in the conference, and like I said before, I think Mizzou is a real threat to win the East. They really only have one tough scheduling break, four week stretch from September 22 to October 13 where they host Georgia, get their bye week, go to South Carolina, and then travel to Alabama. If they could knock off the Bulldogs, they’d still be in the conference race even if they lost both games against the Gamecocks and the Tide, meaning they could still have a lot to play for when they meet Tennessee in the middle of November.
@ Vanderbilt: Win. Needing a victory to get to six wins and a bowl game, Tennessee SHOULD be able to beat Vanderbilt. Plus, the Vols haven’t lost to the Commodores three times in a row since 1926.
6-6 with a victory over Florida and a 3-5 conference record would be a solid debut for Pruitt, even if it’d somehow be Tennessee’s tenth season since 2005 with seven or fewer victories, which is just an absolutely incredible statistic for a program as successful as this one has been. Then again, the fans are going to expect the Vols, even if they don’t win every game, to at least be competitive week to week. Pruitt isn’t taking over the dumpster fire program that Butch inherited from Dooley; the cupboard isn’t empty.
Year 1 won’t tell Pruitt’s story in Knoxville. A lot of great coaches have struggled in their first season at a new job. Nick Saban went 6-6 his first year at Alabama, and no one thought Kirby Smart would burst onto the scene in Year 2 at Georgia after the way his first season turned out. But keep this in mind, because I’m going to be writing this over and over again: since the inception of the SEC Championship Game in 1992, every single coach that won the SEC had at least 9 victories in a season by his second year at the school. Meaning that if you’re a great coach and a successful hire, you get things turned around quickly. There’s 25+ years of evidence now. We’ll know where we stand with Pruitt by the end of the 2019 season.
And now that you’ve read over 2000 words about Tennessee’s upcoming season, why not stick around for my (I swear they won’t be crappy, or at least hope not!) college picks? I haven’t done these weekly in a long time, but this year feels like the right time to bring them back. These aren’t gambling picks, just straight up winners and losers. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to gamble based on these picks anyway. Unless you want a mob boss showing up to your house and cracking your kneecaps with a bat.
Without further ado….
Alabama over Louisville (in Orlando)
The easiest pick of the opening weekend, and it doesn’t even matter who starts at QB for the Tide, because the only thing Nick Saban does more often than win national titles is destroy non conference opponents in neutral sites. Since 2008, Alabama has opened up against a non conference opponent at a neutral site every year except in 2010 and 201l; they’ve won all of those games by ten points or more. Louisville’s new quarterback Jawon Pass (great name!) is making his first career start against the number 1 team in the country, and in the four years Cardinals’ coach Bobby Petrino was the head coach at Arkansas, he was 0-4 against Saban, including three defeats by 24 points or more. Alabama may face issues down the road with graduation/guys leaving for the NFL draft, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, but I don’t expect any of that to flare up this week because Louisville isn’t that talented. The Tide will win by three touchdowns.
Michigan over Notre Dame (@ Notre Dame)
It’s now or never for the Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan. Ohio State is in flux from the Urban Meyer-Zach Smith situation, and Penn State lost their best player in Saquon Barkley to the NFL draft. Plus, he has TEN returning starters on defense, and with Shea Patterson’s transfer from Ole Miss, the best quarterback he’s had since he set foot in Ann Arbor. This is the best chance he’s had since he’s been there to break through, beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten, and take the Wolverines to the playoff. There’s been Harbaugh blowback with how the last three years have turned out, but it’s also fair to point out that he’s a weird punt mishandling against Michigan State in 2015 and a bad spot against Ohio State in 2016 away from being Big Ten Champs once or twice and having one or two appearances in the college football playoff. Harbaugh’s track record suggests he should get it going at Michigan eventually, right? I at least believe in them this week against the Irish and Brian Kelly, who is only a mediocre 14-17 against ranked opponents since he arrived in South Bend in 2010. Plus, Notre Dame lost their two best offensive lineman from last year’s team, only their biggest strength from last season's 10 win team. I expect a regression back to Brian Kelly’s mean this year.
Washington over Auburn (in Atlanta)
This is an upset pick here, and virtually a road game for the Huskies, as they have to travel all the way across the country and through three different time zones, whereas Auburn can basically drive to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a golf cart. The argument for Washington is that they return 16 starters from last year’s team that went 10-3, including their three year starter at QB Jake Browning AND nine players from a defense that has allowed the fewest points in the Pac 12 the last three seasons. I’m also not all that high on Auburn this year. Gus Malzahn has been largely mediocre during his five year tenure, besides his first season in 2013 when his Tigers went 12-2 and were a late touchdown from winning the national title, and last year, an uneven season that saw them defeat Alabama, win the SEC West, and somehow still find a way to still finish with four losses. They’ve been ready to fire him about 1000 different times, and if he didn’t have the triumvirate of the Hail Mary against Georgia and the Kick Six against 'Bama from 2013, as well as LSU’s inability to get the play off before they scored the winning TD in 2016, he'd probably be doing TV or coaching high school football somewhere by now. Here’s an incredible stat for you: in five years at Auburn, Malzahn has won only one non-conference game away from home against a Power 5 team (including bowl games), when the Tigers beat Kansas State in Manhattan back in 2014. I actually think Washington makes the four team playoff again this year; the only tough stretch of their schedule is when they play back-to-back road games on October 6th and October 13th against UCLA and Oregon. Otherwise, the schedule breaks in their favor; they avoid USC and get Stanford at home.
Miami over LSU (in Arlington)
The Hurricanes had a bounce back year last season after a decade plus of wandering in the wilderness. They started 2-17 10-0 and Turnover Chain-ed their way to within a game of an ACC Title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. It remains to be seen if Mark Richt is capable of winning a national title, but he certainly won a hell of lot of games at Georgia, and appears to be on his way to doing so at The U. Starting quarterback Malik Rosier returns, as do a slew of other talented players on both sides of the ball from last year’s team.
LSU seems to be trending the opposite direction. I’d believe that Ed Orgeron, based on his speech pattern alone, is a lifeless corpse powered by a mice with controls inside his skull. Coach O had the benefit of coaching what was mostly Les Miles’s talented players last season; they’ll be less of those guys around this season. Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow is the starting QB, which scares… no one. Steve Ensminger is the new offensive coordinator after the Matt Canada experiment failed last season. The last two times Ensminger was an OC anywhere, it was at Auburn in 2008 and at LSU in 2016, when he took over for fired coordinators at mid-season. How did those offenses perform? Poorly! His ’08 Auburn offense didn’t score more than 22 points against any SEC opponent, while his ’16 LSU offense scored 0 and 10 points against the two best defenses he played, Alabama and Florida. I’m not sure Orgeron has any clue about how to put together a competent offensive attack, and he won’t get any help from Ensminger, who won’t get any help from his unproven QB. And you thought Les Miles’s offenses were bad!
Plus, the schedule is really difficult; from October 6 to November 3, the Tigers play at Florida, home against Georgia, home against Mississippi State, get their bye week, and then host Alabama. That could very easily be 0-4 even though they get three of those games at home. And that’s not including their September 15 game at Auburn, or their season finale at Texas A&M. I said when Orgeron got promoted from the interim coach to the head man in 2016 that he wouldn't be the coach in three years, and I’ll stand by that prediction. A losing season feels in play for this team.
Virginia Tech over Florida State (@ FSU)
I’m making this pick based solely on the coaching match up. Justin Fuente is 38-14 in his last four seasons as a coach at both Memphis and Virginia Tech, and is backed by Bud Foster, one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. Meanwhile, FSU’s Willie Taggart is 47-50 overall as a head coach, has only had one ten win season, has never won a conference championship, and yet, he has somehow been able to keep tricking people into giving him better and better head coaching gigs. He was 16-20 at Western Kentucky, 24-25 at South Florida, and 7-5 in his lone year at Oregon. Why is everyone enamored with this guy? Did he hack the iCloud and steal naked pictures of every athletic director in the country? Is he a more fun hang that Tom Herman? I have no clue. Regardless, the 97 game sample of his coaching career tells me he won’t be successful at FSU. What’s going to be hilarious is when he finds a way to convince USC to hire him when the Trojans finally get off the Clay Helton train.
Finally, here’s my predictions for each of the Power 5 conferences AND the College Football Playoff:
SEC West: Alabama
SEC East: Missouri
SEC Champ: Alabama
I don’t care how many defensive starters the Tide have lost (it’s 8!), I’m not ever picking against Alabama in the SEC again until Saban retires or Bryant-Denny Stadium is destroyed by a meteorite during a fall Saturday. As for the East… I’m pushing all my chips in with Mizzou. They’ve got the best quarterback in the division and a workable schedule. What’s that? Derek Dooley is Mizzou’s offensive coordinator? DEREK DOOLEY? Oh… well, not even he could screw this up.
Big Ten East: Michigan State
Big Ten West: Wisconsin
Big Ten Champ: Michigan State
Even though Urban Meyer has been proven a hypocrite, a liar, and a fraud during this entire Zach Smith saga, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a great football coach. Hell, that’s the only reason he got to keep his job. If this was Ed Orgeron, LSU would have already buried his body somewhere deep in the Bayou so he could return to the place from whence he came. The truth is, even if the Buckeyes lose their Week 3 game without Meyer at TCU, their schedule would still give them a great opportunity to win the Big Ten and make the playoff. Their toughest road games, at Penn State and at Michigan State, are separated by more than a month, and they get Michigan in Columbus to end the season. The argument against them is simple... THEY'RE HEAD COACH JUST GOT SUSPENDED FOR HOW HE HANDLED ONE OF HIS ASSISTANTS BEATING HIS WIFE. There's no way that's not a major distraction all season. Plus, they have a new quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, who we know nothing about besides some glowing stories. Who cares? He's totally unproven.
Michigan’s schedule is one of the toughest in the country, and it includes a brutal three game stretch from October 13 to November 3 that goes like this: home for Wisconsin, at Michigan State, bye week, home for Penn State. Throw in a road game against what could be a feisty Northwestern team, and the aforementioned road game against Ohio State at the end of the year, and I suspect the schedule will be too much for them, even for the amount of talent they have.
Penn State has back to back home games against Ohio State and Michigan State on September 29th and October 13th, plus the road game against Michigan followed by a home game against Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. I think the loss of Saquon Barkley will really hurt this team, even if senior Trace McSorley is potentially the best QB in the division.
I’m taking the Spartans to win the division because of their workable schedule (they get both Michigan and Ohio State at home, and those games are separated by three weeks. Plus, they catch Penn State the week after they play Ohio State) and their 19 returning starters from last year’s 10-3 team, including QB Brian Lewerke Jr., who put up the second best season in school history last season in terms of total yardage.
I expect Wisconsin to win the West without much of a fight, but we’ve seen this story with Big Ten West teams before, namely the Badgers and Iowa: they go through the regular season undefeated or with one loss due to their easier schedules, and then show up and lose to the better, more talented and battle-tested teams out of the East.
ACC Coastal: Virginia Tech
ACC Atlantic: Clemson
ACC Champ: Clemson
I think Clemson will mash everyone all season and easily make the playoff as the undefeated number 1 team in the country. They return Kelly Bryant at quarterback, who was really effective all season until he got bullied more than the biggest loser in a middle school by the Alabama defense during the playoff semifinals. On the other side of the ball, the Tiger defense returns eight starters, including six from a front seven that set the tone for nation's second ranked scoring defense. The Coastal Division will come down to the Va Tech-Miami game in Blacksburg on November 17. I went with the Hokies because they’re the home team in that one.
Pac 12 North: Washington
Pac 12 South: UCLA
Pac 12 Champ: Washington
I gave this one away about 2000 words ago during the Auburn-UW portion of this. As far as the South division is concerned, I could’ve talked myself into all six of the teams, but I ended up going with the Bruins because CHIP KELLY IS BACK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL and he’s by far the best coach in that division. The NFL thing was more disappointing than Season 7 of Game of Thrones, but never forget that during his four years at Oregon, he went 46-7 and won three Pac 12 titles. It’s a question of when he gets things rolling in Los Angeles, not if.
Big 12 1st Place: Oklahoma
Big 12 2nd Place: Iowa State
Big 12 Champ: Oklahoma
I have no clue about this conference because everyone scores a zillion points and no one plays any defense. It’s basically a 60 minute pillow fight where guys occasionally run into each other. I'm rolling the dice with Iowa State because they return 15 starters from last year’s 8-5 team that shocked everyone. They were also able to hold onto Matt Campbell, one of the best young coaches in the country. Oklahoma’s defense will probably suck again, but it won't ultimately matter because they still have more talent than anyone in the conference. Texas has been getting a lot of love as a potential contender, but unfortunately for their head coach Tom Herman, they don’t play football games in a strip club.
My Four Team Playoff
4. Michigan State
2018 National Championship Game
Clemson 31, Alabama 28
Enjoy the season guys. Football is back!