Phil Steele Sees Vols “Making a Large Jump” in 2019

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    Vol fans are hoping Tennessee can show significant improvement in Year Two under head coach Jeremy Pruitt. One prominent analyst in the college football world believes UT fans’ wishes will come true this upcoming season.

    Renowned football statistician Phil Steele releases an annual college football preview magazine, and included in it is his preview of the SEC. In that preview, he shares his predicted order of finish for both divisions within the conference.

    In the SEC East, Steele has Georgia winning the division with Florida finishing second and Missouri placing third. But in fourth place behind those three teams he has Tennessee, and he’s expecting the Vols to be one of the more improved teams in all of college football this upcoming season.

    “The Vols just missed out on making my most improved list last year and missed out on a bowl even with a solid road upset of Auburn on their resume,” Steele says. “This year, they are the most experienced team in the SEC and are in the second year of Jeremy Pruitt’s scheme. I see this team making a large jump this year, and they are near the top of my most improved teams.”

    During SEC Media Days this year, the Vols were predicted to finish fifth in the SEC East. Steele thinks Tennessee will exceed those expectations, however.

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    Steele doesn’t share what he thinks Tennessee’s record will be in 2019, so his claim of a “large jump” for the Vols could mean a number of things. But the numbers Steele has gathered over the summer support his claim.

    According to Steele’s data, Tennessee returns the most starters of any team in the SEC, and they have the second-highest overall experience rating in the entire conference. Only LSU scored a higher experience rating in Steele’s system than the Vols in the SEC.

    In Steele’s rating system, the Vols earned a total of 69 experience points. Prior to the start of the 2018 season, 30 teams in Steele’s calculations earned at least 69 experience points, and 19 of those 30 teams improved by at least one win from their 2017 results. Four teams saw no change in the win column, and only six teams ended up with worse records in 2018 than in 2017 (Liberty placed 14th in Steele’s experience rankings last season, but 2018 marked their first year in the FBS).

    That’s not the only data from Steele that predicts the Vols will show improvement in 2019.

    By Steele’s calculations, Tennessee returns 16 total starters, including their starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. In Steele’s 2018 preview, there were 21 teams that returned 16 or more starters from the previous season, including their starting QB. Of those 21 programs, 17 of them finished 2018 with a better record than they did in 2017.

    The last time Tennessee finished fourth or better in the SEC East was in 2016. The Vols went 4-4 in conference play that year but owned head-to-head tiebreakers over Georgia and Kentucky to finish ahead of them in the standings.

    Tennessee has finished fourth or better in the East just four times in the last nine seasons.

    Steele isn’t guaranteeing the Vols will have massive success in 2019, but all his data points to the odds being in Tennessee’s favor of improving by at least one or two wins from the 2018 season. That would be good enough to get Tennessee to a bowl game, and it would set the Vols on the right path in their rebuild under Jeremy Pruitt.