One day before spring practice begins and six months before the opening kickoff seems a safe time to tell you what I know or at least believe about Tennessee football.
This comes after considerable research. College Football News contributed. It said the best-case scenario for the Volunteers is 10-2. The worst case is 5-7.
Those numbers are not precisely focused. They could apply to 87 different teams.
I know that eight Tennessee victories in 2019 represented progress. Questions remain. The Vols actually regressed in rushing touchdowns, down two from 2018, to 111th in the country.
I know Jarrett Guarantano threw for 415 yards at Missouri and it still took a fourth-quarter defensive stop to preserve the value. I also know Tennessee had gone seven seasons without such a passing performance and had never had three 100-yard receivers in the same game.
Two other critical wins were closer. The great goal-line stand against Kentucky and the perfectly executed onside kick against Indiana transformed the season from negative to positive. Luck or skill?
I know there isn’t too much wrong with a six-game winning streak. What the Vols actually did was grow up enough to handle the softer half of the schedule and knock off traditional also-rans.
In the excitement after the Gator Bowl, Jeremy Pruitt proclaimed the 2020s will be the decade of the Vols. I’m not so sure of that but it certainly is an intriguing thought.
To maintain the progressive image, Tennessee needs to be ready to rumble, week after week, to win the eight games that appear winnable and upset one of the big boys. Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama and Georgia will be favored.
Winning nine won’t be easy. The team must find leaders to follow. There is no Jauan Jennings, no Daniel Bituli. Ten or 12 people need to play better than they ever have. There is optimism.
It was fun to hear Phillip Fulmer proclaim “We’re back!”
It was smart to hear his clarification: “Well, we’re on our way back.”
Fulmer is even more convinced that he picked a good football coach. Any day now, Fulmer will catch a raise. They are all around.
I know Pruitt did a heck of a job holding the team together through the shocking start, the really bad game at Florida and the lop-sided loss to Georgia. Scoreboards said those two combined were 60 points better than the Vols.
The orange team could have surrendered. It didn’t. It responded to the coach’s demand. It put on more steam. The coach really likes the idea of putting on more steam. That concept is borrowed from Robert R. Neyland’s treasured maxims.
I thought I saw improvement from the offensive line as early as mid-October but the running attack did not show much until Eric Gray ran Vanderbilt into the ground.
This next offensive line figures to be a team strength. Five factors are relevant. Trey Smith stayed. Cade Mays transferred in. Brandon Kennedy got a bonus year of eligibility. There is more depth. Freshman tackles will soon be sophomores.
I don’t believe wide receivers will be a catastrophic weakness. Remember you read it here.
It would really help if Guarantano performs far better than he has and finally becomes a consistent quarterback. He must make better decisions, release the ball quicker and throw where receivers are going instead of where they have been. I hope it will happen. I am not overly confident.
Note to Jim Chaney: Somehow, the offense must get better. Red zone numbers just weren’t good enough.
The defense will be crusty, with or without Darel Middleton. Emmit Gooden needs to return to at least where he was when injury knocked him out of 2019. The secondary is maturing. All Henry To’o To’o has to do to become an all-American linebacker is convince himself that he is really a faster Bituli with a different number.
Bituli, a pied piper, said he left the defense better than he found it. He said there are a bunch of hungry guys who are here to win. Sounds about right. Look for energy and enthusiasm and two or three more blitzes.
Pruitt created a risk in his bid for improved recruiting. He traded in assistant coaches with decades of experience. One promising newcomer, Shelton Felton, is three years old as a college coach, two at Chattanooga, one at Akron.
I do believe the head coach knows where he wants to go. If all the new guys have the zip to keep up, if they can contribute to player improvement, if there are no debilitating injuries at critical positions, if no kicks are blocked, if no winning TDs are rubbed out by officiating errors, if quarterback play improves, if, if, if…
College Football News said 10 is possible. A poet I know says nine would be fine.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is email@example.com