After closing out the 2019 season on a six-game winning streak, Tennessee enters the offseason as one of the hottest teams in college football. The Vols return a large bulk of experience on both sides of the ball, and UT added a top-10 recruiting class and some high profile transfers to the roster as well.
Vol fans are anticipating bigger things in the 2020 season, and the early preseason rankings agree.
ESPN released their initial Football Power Index rankings for the 2020 preseason, and Tennessee cracked the top 25, checking in at No. 19 in the debut rankings. The Vols finished the 2019 season ranked 33rd in the FPI, and their 14-spot rise is the fourth-highest jump among all FBS teams. Only Florida State (+28), Nebraska (+25), and Virginia Tech (+23) saw bigger jumps in their rankings from the end of the 2019 season to the 2020 preseason.
All in all, Tennessee is one of seven schools from the SEC ranked inside the top 25 of the FPI. The Vols trail Alabama (4th), Texas A&M (8th), Georgia (10th), Florida (11th), LSU (12th). and Auburn (15th). Oklahoma, one of UT’s 2020 opponents, comes in at No. 3 in the preseason FPI. Clemson and Ohio State are the top two teams.
The FPI is “a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season,” according to ESPN. The FPI “represents how many points above or below average a team is.”
The Vols lose some key contributors from their 2019 squad, most notably in their wide receiver and linebacking corps. Receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway both graduated, as did linebackers Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor. Safety Nigel Warrior and tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson also graduated.
But aside from those seniors, Tennessee is set to return their starters at every other position, and new additions will provide some competition and depth at other areas.
Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returns for his fifth season at UT, and backups Brian Maurer and JT Shrout also return this spring. Tennessee also welcomes in five-star Harrison Bailey to the quarterback room for spring practices. The Vols’ three leading rushers all return, and UT welcomes back all of their starters along the offensive line, most notably Trey Smith, who returns for his senior season. Tennessee also added former five-star and Georgia starter Cade Mays to their offensive line via transfer, and he’s battling to be immediately eligible for the 2020 season.
The Vols’ group of pass catchers experience the most turnover, but Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson return to provide some senior leadership to the group of wideouts. Austin Pope is the veteran in the tight end group, and UT has some promising young players there as well.
On defense, Tennessee returns every single one of their defensive linemen from 2019, and senior Emmit Gooden will be back after suffering a season-ending injury in fall camp last year. Star freshman Henry To’o To’o will lead the linebacker group as a sophomore, and Tennessee has a number of young linebackers ready to step up.
In the secondary, rising juniors Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor headline the cornerback position, while Jaylen McCollough, Theo Jackson, and Trevon Flowers highlight the safety group. Tennessee also brings in elite four-star safety Keshawn Lawrence from the 2020 class to add some competition.
Vol fans have learned to be cautious about what ESPN’s FPI says about teams in the preseason, as the Vols have often failed to live up to the preseason FPI rankings. But Tennessee will be fairly experienced and has a lot of young players with another year of experience under their belts heading into the 2020 season.
Only time will tell if ESPN’s preseason projections turn out true, but it’s apparent that there’s going to be quite a bit more hype heading into Jeremy Pruitt’s third year as Tennessee’s head coach than the previous two seasons.