Aside from three starters along the defensive line and a fourth key rotational player, Tennessee didn’t lose much in the way of production off their 2018 roster. That could benefit the Vols this season.
According to famed statistician Phil Steele, Tennessee will be the second-most experienced team in the SEC for the 2019 football season. In his breakdown of returning production and experience on his 2019 Experience Chart for all 130 FBS teams, Steele’s calculations put Tennessee at No. 21 overall in the country and second behind only LSU in terms of returning production and experience.
To determine his “experience points,” Steele factors in five different categories into an equation: The number of senior starters and seniors in the two-deep, the percentage of returning lettermen, the percentage of returning tackles on defense, the percentage of returning yards on offense, and the number of career starts on the offensive line.
“A (100) would be a team with 25 seniors (NCAA scholarship limit) in the two deep and every yard and tackle returning and 120+ career starts on the offensive line,” Steele explains. “A (0) would be a team with no experience and 0 seniors in the two deep”
Tennessee has a total of 69 experience points, just edging out Georgia State (68.9) and falling just behind Houston (69.2). Only LSU (69.7) has a better total than the Vols in the SEC.
According to Steele’s calculations, the Vols return a total of 69 career starts on the offensive line, which has them tied with Clemson and Texas A&M for 52nd in the FBS. The Vols are 62nd in the FBS in percentage of tackles returning from last year with 62.4 percent, and they’re tied for 75th in total experience in terms of projected two-deep experience with nine projected senior starters and eight projected junior starters. Overall, Tennessee returns 73.9 percent of their lettermen from last season.
The area where Tennessee really shines is on offense.
The Vols are first in the SEC and No. 4 overall in returning production on offense according to Steele. Tennessee returns 91.1 percent of their offensive yards from last season, trailing only Minnesota (97.1 percent), Southern Miss (93.4 percent), and FIU (92.6 percent). Tennessee returns starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, their top two rushers, and all of their main pass catchers from last season.
When you add all those factors together, it places Tennessee inside the top 25 of the most experienced teams in the FBS.
In a vacuum, having experience sounds great. But does it translate to success on the field?
Last year, 30 teams earned at least 69 experience points — Tennessee’s total this year — in Steele’s calculations prior to the 2018 college football season. Of those 30 teams, 19 saw an improvement of at least one win from their previous season, four saw no change in their win total, and six teams ended up with worse records than their previous season (Liberty placed 14th in Steele’s chart last offseason, but it was their first year in the FBS). Only four of those 30 teams didn’t get enough wins to qualify for a bowl game in the 2018 season.
Based on those numbers, Tennessee’s odds of improving their win total by at least one just from their returning experience alone are pretty solid.
Last year, Tennessee looked like a very different squad from the 2017 team, coming in 87th in Steele’s overall experience chart and 12th in the SEC. That showed, as Tennessee struggled in a lot of games and limped to a 5-7 mark.
This season, the Vols will return a lot more production and should be one of the most veteran offenses in the country. Tennessee won’t be the most talented team in the country, nor will their returning experience be at the same level as a Clemson or an LSU. But having experience matters, and Tennessee has more than most teams heading into the 2019 season.