Most national and regional analysts aren’t expecting big things from the Vols in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year as head coach. Some are predicting Tennessee to just barely make a bowl game this year, while others are projecting the Vols to miss out on the postseason for the second straight year.
One of the most respected and renowned analysts in college football, Phil Steele, isn’t outright predicting doom and gloom for the Vols in 2018. But he’s not very confident Tennessee will be able to get to that six win mark in Pruitt’s first season.
In an interview with Tony Basilio during his Friday show, Steele was asked about Tennessee’s upcoming season and what he expects from the rebuilding Vols. Steele didn’t paint the bleakest of pictures for the Vols, but he made sure to let Vol fans know that he isn’t feeling too optimistic either.
“I think a bowl is possible this year,” Steele said of Tennessee’s 2018 season. “I didn’t call for it, I didn’t put Tennessee on my most improved list, but it’s definitely possible.”
Steele would go on to give his take on every game on Tennessee’s schedule. Every year as part of his annual college football preview magazine, Steele gives his early betting lines ahead of Vegas putting out most of their lines. And he isn’t expecting Tennessee to be favored in many contests this season.
According to Steele, the Vols will only be favorites in two SEC games this year. He has them as six-point favorites over Kentucky and early 1.5-point favorites over Vanderbilt. He has Tennessee’s match-up with Missouri as a “pick ’em” right now, and he believes the Vols will be favorites in home contests against ETSU, UTEP, and Charlotte.
But every other game? Steele believes the Vols will be underdogs. And significant underdogs in some cases.
Right now, Vegas has Tennessee as almost a 10-point underdog to West Virginia to start the 2018 season. Steele is a little more optimistic, listing the Vols as only seven-point underdogs. He has Florida as a three-point favorite over the Vols when the Gators come to Knoxville.
Every other game on Tennessee’s schedule has the Vols as double-digit underdogs according to Steele.
Tennessee travels to South Carolina when the Gamecocks are coming off a bye week, and Steele has Tennessee as 10-point underdogs in that game. Steele also has Auburn as a 17-point favorite when the Vols travel to face them in October. He has the Vols as 24-point underdogs in two games: When Tennessee travels to Athens to face Georgia and when they host Alabama.
Given all that, Steele only has the Vols favored in five games with the Missouri game being the likely toss-up game that could decide their postseason fate.
Could the Vols make a bowl in 2018? Steele says it’s possible, and if all goes well, they could end up bouncing back and reverse their record from 2017. But Steele says don’t count on that unless things go nearly perfectly for Tennessee.
“If I put on my orange-colored glasses…7-5 is about as good as it gets, but best case scenario if you throw an upset in there is 8-4,” Steele stated. “That would be the absolute best case scenario. But I’m not wearing orange-colored glasses, so I’m not calling for 8-4. But I can see if everything goes perfect for them, they can get to that level this year.”
Steele may be teetering on whether or not the Vols will be bowl eligible this season, but he does believe there will be improvement. He’s calling for Tennessee to have the most improved run defense in all of college football this season. Granted, the Vols had one of the worst rushing defenses in college football last year, but that’s still improvement. His analytics predict that Tennessee will go from allowing 251.3 yards per game on the ground last season to around 190 yards in 2018. That would still be near the bottom of the SEC, but it wouldn’t be the worst rush defense in the conference nor the fifth-worst in the entire country like last year.
Tennessee should be improved in 2018, but by how much? Steele seems to think it won’t be a great deal, but it might be enough to get the Vols to a bowl game at least.