Tennessee isn’t expected to make a run at an SEC Championship in year two under Jeremy Pruitt. So when ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index ratings came out on Thursday afternoon, many were surprised that the Vols were ranked as highly as they were.
In ESPN’s preliminary preseason FPI rankings for the 2019 college football season, Tennessee checked in at No. 15.
That’s right, that’s a top 15 ranking for a team coming off of a 5-7 season that included a 2-6 mark in conference play. Tennessee ended the season ranked No. 65 in the FPI last year.
“It’s easy to see why the Volunteers have flown up our board,” ESPN explained. “Tennessee is one of just three FBS schools to return 10 starters on offense (and it brings back 17 overall), including quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who posted a solid QBR of 67.4 last season.
“Even though Tennessee struggled on offense overall last season, teams that bring back that much talent tend to undergo significant improvement from one year to the next. The Vols also rank highly in recruiting over the past four years.”
ESPN describes the Football Power Index as its “predictive rating and ranking system for college football.” According to ESPN, it’s set to the scale of points per game above average, and it fuels all of the predictions and projections before and during the season.
The four determining factors used is team performance over the past four years (with greater emphasis on last season); returning starters at quarterback, on offense overall, and on defense; whether a team has a returning head coach; and recruiting rankings over the past four seasons.
As a league, the SEC had 10 teams in the FPI’s preseason top 20 and three of the top five teams in the initial rankings. Alabama (2nd), Georgia (3rd), LSU (4th), Florida (8th), Auburn (9th) and Texas A&M (11th) were the SEC teams ranked ahead of Tennessee. Clemson, the reigning national champions, came in at No. 1 in the rankings.
On offense, the Vols’ top two rushers – Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan – return. At receiver, its top nine receivers return from last season, as does starting tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson.
Defensively, Tennessee returns its top two tacklers – Daniel Bituli and Nigel Warrior. Pruitt’s defense also returns its two starting corners in Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson.
As for the special teams, Tennessee returns all three starters in Brent Cimaglia at kicker, Joe Doyle at punter, and Riley Lovingood at long-snapper. The Vols also have a lot of potential and returning production at both kick returner and punt returner.
Six of Tennessee’s 12 regular season opponents are ranked inside the top 20 of the initial preseason FPI rankings. Alabama (2nd), Georgia (3rd), Florida (8th), Mississippi State (16th), South Carolina (19th), and Missouri (20th) are all inside the top 20 of the early rankings.
This isn’t the first metric to rank the Vols highly in the preseason, either. SB Nation’s first S&P+ rankings came out earlier this week, and Tennessee came in at No. 21 in that preseason ranking.
It’s unlikely the Vols will be ranked inside the top 25 of the AP Poll to start the season, but it’s clear that the analytics like Tennessee’s chances of having a much better season in 2019 than last year.
Tennessee kicks off the 2019 season on Aug. 31 against Georgia State in Neyland Stadium.