A 9-3 or 10-2 schedule ≠ difficult.
So, fun fact: I was planning on saving this post about Tennessee and Butch Jones for, like, July, but then this happened.
"7 or 8 wins is a realistic outcome for Tennessee in 2017 … the schedule is that difficult" @JimmyHyams
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) January 23, 2017
I have no interest in being mean to the middle man here, so I just want to be honest: this is ridiculous and absurd.
To claim the schedule will be Tennessee’s issue in 2017 is baffling. Tennessee will enter the season more talented than all but one team in the East, based on a four-year rolling talent average. They’ll be more talented than nine of their 12 opponents. When adjusted for home-field advantage, an average performance with their talent would be 10-2 (6-2). Recruiting success is the #1 predictor of talent in college football, and it should be the predictor of Tennessee’s success.
Here’s what the schedule looks like taking Tennessee’s average recruit rating from the last four years against their opponents.
Tennessee will enter the 2017 season as a more talented team than nine of their 12 opponents, which is the same as this season. Regardless of returning starters, Tennessee should have the depth to win 75% of their games.
When I factor in home-field advantage, Tennessee should have an even better season.
(It’s worth noting that last year, these same two formulas would’ve said 10-2 (6-2) or 9-3 (5-3).)
So yeah, let’s stop complaining about the schedule. Why not ask this question: why isn’t Tennessee living up to expectations? Take a look at the graph below. It’s a four-year rolling average of each SEC East team’s recruiting class ranking.
Notice anything special? Florida’s now below Tennessee for the second straight season. Barring a sudden jump in their recruiting under McElwain, they’ll be less talented than Tennessee for the next four years. Also, Georgia is likely to rule the East for the next four years, unless Kirby Smart is a truly awful head coach.
If it were based on talent alone with zero consideration given to location or coaching, Butch Jones would be 17–7 against the East Division. He’s currently 14–10, three games below expectation. It’s a bit worse with the West Division: with talent only, Jones should be 3–5 against the West with wins over Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss in 2014. Of course, we know how this story ends. Jones is 0–8 against the significantly better division in the SEC, also leaving him three games below expectation. Through four years at Tennessee, Jones is 11–8 against teams less talented than his and 3–10 against those with more. These aren’t positive numbers.
Lastly, let’s talk about the blue-chip ratio on Tennessee’s roster. Bud Elliott at SB Nation loves to show how much four and five-star recruits matter to winning championships. In doing so, he coined the blue-chip ratio, a simple way of showing if you’re a championship contender or not: do you have more four and five-stars on your roster than all other recruits combined? If so, congrats! You match all but one of the last 12 champions (2011 Auburn, who, you know, had a guy). Tennessee fell just short of this in 2016, entering the season with a 44.4% blue chip ratio.
Notice how Tennessee’s trendline is starting to point down; the 2017 recruiting class currently has just five blue-chip players (5/27, 18.5%). That would be the worst class since the Dooley/Jones combined class (4/23, 17.9%) and the third-worst in the last 13 years (2006, 1/18, 5.6%, AKA the real class that killed Fulmer).
Tennessee, firmly, is now more talented across the board on all metrics than Florida. The issue is developing this talent. It’s worth noting that the excellent 2014 and 2015 classes at Tennessee have, so far, gone 22–14 (12–12) and 16-8 (9-7) with expected records of 28–10 (15–9) and 20–4 (12–4) based on which team was more talented. On average, that’s two wins below expectation each season.
The talent level at Tennessee, regardless of how weak the East is as a whole, is to the point where Tennessee can go 5–1 or 6–0 against their own division. Then again, they just lost to the least-talented team in the division.