Alright folks, it’s game week and the long wait is over. When the ball launches off the tee for the first time at Bank of America Stadium, Vols fans will be able to breathe for the first time in a while. Anticipation has fans wondering what this team will look like.
As kickoff looms, some fans seem to be gaining optimism along with anxiety. Some welcome a competitive year with a bowl game bid as its trophy.
People seem to be set on the fact that this team will win more games than last year. That shouldn’t be hard considering the 2017 Vols only won four games, with none being in conference play. Nonetheless, Jeremy Pruitt’s legacy as a head coach will begin Saturday and the Vols are hungry for a statement.
There is talk about how well the players have welcomed a massive culture change. Competition at position groups has been noted. Will that translate into more wins? If so, how many?
WHAT ABOUT THE ROSTER?
I know this team can make a bowl game. There are too many talented bodies on the roster. Some, like Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor, are learning new positions. Others are battling for starter status. No one knows what the wide receiver and defensive back rotation will look like.
But one thing is clear, there is quality depth at both. Freshman Alontae Taylor might start at cornerback along with playing in spots at receiver. Marquez Callaway is one of the most underrated at his position. Jauan Jennings, one of the nation’s best 50/50 guys, is back on the squad.
The quarterback battle could go either way. Word is leaking out that Jarrett Guarantano will get the first start over graduate transfer Keller Chryst. Both have experience against quality competition. You can make a case for either taking the reigns and starting the whole year.
The Vols are deep and healthy at running back. As many as four guys might tote the rock this Saturday. Ty Chandler is by far the most dynamic. Then, you have grad transfer Madre London, who brings experience and a steady approach.
The most important position group for this team is the offensive line. The news of Trey Smith being healthy changes the whole dynamic for this unit. Marcus Tatum and Chance Hall are also healthy and ready to go. Couple that with the addition of Alabama grad transfer Brandon Kennedy, and the O-line looks formidable.
The trickiest component is the schedule. The Vols open up with West Virginia. After two cupcakes, they will see a gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina. Florida and Alabama are home while the others are away.
It’s not an easy path to a bowl game. But the Vols can do it, and more. My 8-4 prediction is on the optimistic side, but I truly believe Pruitt and company can get it done.
Regardless of the outcome of the West Virginia game (which I think we lose, but cover), I think the Vols take down Florida at home. They will either be looking to shake off a lingering taste from Sept. 1 or riding a wave of momentum. Remember, Florida coach Dan Mullen didn’t exactly walk into a fluid situation. As good of a quarterback guru that he is, Mullen will still have to wait until one guy evolves into his system. The Gators didn’t have the quietest off-season either. Florida will be tough under Mullen but it will take some time for Cousin Eddie to clean the program and develop his system quarterback.
Expect the Vols to walk into Columbia, South Carolina and shock what should be a Top-25 team. South Carolina might even be on the brink of Top-10 status. The Gamecocks have a real chance to be 5-2 and maybe even 6-1 when they meet the Vols. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a huge Will Muschamp fan, I just think he reaches his ceiling in 2018. I am a fan of QB Jake Bentley. The guy has moxy and he is a gamer. Deebo Samuel is a match-up nightmare, but this is his last year of eligibility and I think Bentley also exits for the pros. Before doing so, the duo will be dealt a devastating loss.
MOST HEARTBREAKING LOSS
The timing of this game is important. The Vols will travel to Columbia after suffering what will be the most heartbreaking loss of the season against Auburn. That loss will be preceded by tough games against Georgia and Alabama. I just don’t see this team losing four straight. The trip to Jordan-Hare will result in a true reflection of the change in culture that this team has endured. Enter gut check time.
Oct. 27 will be a prime opportunity to steal one from the Gamecocks. In the week prior, South Carolina will probably be high off of a big win against Texas A&M. Whether it’s a quarterback change or a matter of pride, I think Pruitt pulls off what Butch Jones couldn’t: beat Muschamp.
This will propel Tennessee to run the table the rest of the way. Kentucky and Missouri will be at home, followed by a trip to the mid-state to face Vanderbilt at Neyland West. We are not losing to Kentucky at home and I think we get revenge on Derek Dooley by containing Drew Lock.
So there it is, the road to 8-4.
No “bad” losses on the year, just a heart-breaker in Auburn. But, the Vols end the season by winning five straight and fans lose their mind going into a bowl game with expectations of a national title in 2019.
PREDICTIONS FROM TWITTER
“7-5 reg season best win SC, heartbreaking loss to Auburn, most satisfying victory beating Dooley as Mizzou OC” – @wjbwitt
“My prediction is 8-4. We are beating West Virginia” – @noyourface
6-6 best win florida disappointing loss Missouri
— President-Elect Hodges (@nathanhodges28) August 28, 2018