With the offseason in full swing, there’s always plenty of discussion surrounding Tennessee’s potential record the following year.
With all the talent and experience returning last year, 10 wins was the benchmark put forward by many Tennessee fans heading into 2016. Due to a variety of factors, Tennessee fell short of that mark during its 8-4 regular-season campaign.
That makes predicting the 2017 season all the more difficult.
The East certainly remains down overall, though a few programs could be on the rise. And the non-conference schedule is manageable for Tennessee, so there are some reasons to think that Tennessee could match, if not exceed, last year’s win total.
But after last year’s disappointments, skepticism is understandable and it’s tough to predict huge things for this team at this point in the offseason. With all that in mind, here’s how I would classify the 2017 opponents in terms ow how they should be viewed on the schedule:
The automatic wins: Games in which Tennessee will have a noticeable edge in talent and should win convincingly…
• Indiana State: The Sycamores went 4-7 at the FCS level last year, losing six of their final seven. No excuses here.
• UMass: The Minutemen were 2-10 last season, recording wins over Wagner and Florida International. This should be a blowout.
• Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles are in a different class than the first two, but the Vols should still have no problem, even if they don’t play their best.
The expected wins: Games in which Tennessee would likely be the early favorites on paper, but must play and coach at least decently in to avoid an upset…
• Kentucky: With five straight wins in the series and 31 out of the last 32, this must still be counted on as a win even though the Wildcats showed some progress in 2016 and they host the Vols in 2017.
• Missouri: It took three years, but the Vols finally took some control in the series against their newest East foes in the past couple years. Drew Lock has a big arm at quarterback, but this team has a lot of issues.
• Vanderbilt: Sadly for UT fans, Vanderbilt has won three out of five in this series after last season’s upset victory. But the Commodores have only won two straight in this series once since the 1920s, so it has to be the expectation that Tennessee will bounce back and get a win in Knoxville, even though it feels shakier than it should.
• South Carolina: The Vols found out last year what happens when there are distractions heading into a game. With drama surrounding Jalen Hurd unfolding, the Vols went to Columbia and were sluggish in an unexpected loss. Quarterback Jake Bentley has a ton of upside and could give UT problems, but the expectations should still be that the Vols win this one in Knoxville in 2017.
• Georgia Tech: An early release from the Golden Nugget has the Vols as three-point favorites over the Yellow Jackets in this opener being played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tennessee has superior talent, but GT’s option attack can easily neutralize that.
The toss-ups: Games in which Tennessee has comparable talent to the opponent and must play very well to win…
• Florida: Tennessee finally got over the 11-game losing streak last season, but the Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since 2003. Florida’s defense might drop off a bit in 2017, but the Gators have the chance to be better on offense.
• Georgia: This game was literally a toss-up last season as the Vols won when Jauan Jennings brought down a jump-ball Hail Mary as time expired for the win. The Bulldogs are an emerging team with a lot of young talent, but the game returning to Neyland helps Tennessee out.
• LSU: Leonard Fourtette is gone, but the Tigers have another monster in the backfield in Derrius Guice. As usual, the passing game is a question mark for the Tigers – a team that could be one of the biggest wild cards on the schedule with Coach O at the helm now.
The long shot: It’s tough to see the Vols succeeding against…
• Alabama: This is the one game where it’s tough to envision the Vols having success in. Alabama has a ton to replace on defense, but the Tide reloads every year, and after pummeling the Vols in Knoxville in 2016, it’s tough to see it going much differently in Tuscaloosa this year.