Experience matters in the SEC. Even if that experience is from a team that went 5-7 overall and stumbled down the stretch, history has shown that returning experience often leads to improvement the next season. And that’s just what the numbers are saying about Tennessee in 2019.
According to renowned football statistician Phil Steele, the Vols return the most starters off their 2018 roster of any team in the SEC. By his calculations, Tennessee returns 16 total starters from their 2018 team, including 10 starters on offense and six on defense.
Tennessee is tied with a myriad of other teams for the 10th-most returning starters heading into the 2019 season. Among Power Five schools, only UCLA (19), Illinois (17), Michigan State (17), and Oregon (17) return more starters from their 2018 squads than the Vols. Tennessee’s Week 2 opponent, BYU, also returns 17 starters off their roster last season, including their starting quarterback.
The only offensive starter the Vols lose off their roster from last season is offensive lineman Drew Richmond. The former five-star prospect transferred to USC as a grad transfer this offseason.
Aside from Richmond, Tennessee returns the vast majority of their offensive contributors from last season.
Tennessee returns their top three rushers (in terms of carries) from last season, their top eight pass catchers, and their starting quarterback. The Vols also return 69 career starts among their offensive linemen.
That’s 80.9 percent of UT’s passing yards, 86.8 percent of UT’s rushing yards, and 98.5 percent of UT’s receiving yards that return in 2019.
On defense, the Vols lost their three starting defensive linemen from 2018 as well as starting linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., starting outside linebacker Jonathan Kongbo, and part-time starting safety Micah Abernathy. But the Vols still return nearly two-thirds of their total tackles from last season and have the SEC’s leading returning sacker in Darrell Taylor.
According to Steele, there were 21 teams at the start of the 2018 season that returned 16 or more starters from their 2017 roster, including their starting QB. Of those 21 teams, all but four of them finished the 2018 season with a better record than they did in 2017.
This year, Tennessee is one of 20 teams that returns at least 16 starters off last year’s roster while also returning their starting quarterback.
In the SEC, Tennessee is the only team to return more than eight starters from their offense heading into the 2019 season. LSU returns eight of their 11 starters on offense from last year, while Auburn, South Carolina, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State return seven.
Across the board, the Vols are considered one of the most experienced teams heading into the 2019 season. Earlier this offseason, Steele’s data showed that Tennessee is the second-most experienced team in the SEC overall, and they return the most offensive production of any team in the conference.
The experience that Tennessee returns in 2019 isn’t the same type of experience Alabama, LSU, or Florida return. It’s not even the same experience that South Carolina or Missouri return. But history has proven that experience does matter when looking for improvement, and the Vols have earned plenty of experience in knowing what not to do and learning from their mistakes.
All of this data doesn’t mean that Tennessee will show massive improvement in 2019 and will shock the world. All it says is that the odds are in UT’s favor of at least getting to 6-6 overall and ending their bowl drought.
Experience isn’t everything, especially when that experience comes from a team that’s gone 8-15 overall the last two years. But it’s still important, and it could pay off for Tennessee in 2019.