Tennessee is three days away from opening the Josh Heupel era against Bowling Green. The Vols are a whopping 34-point favorite despite the new coaching staff and an offseason of turmoil.
Heupel announced Joe Milton as his starting quarterback Monday but there’s still questions on the Vols. The RTI team answers your questions with kickoff right around the corner.
Why is this year’s non-conference schedule filled with such weak competition? There are four easy wins.
Ric Butler: In reality, it’s kind of just the nature of college football. These games are usually scheduled so far in advance, sometimes by people that are not employed by the University anymore. So it’s just how the cards fall each year. Sometimes, you’re playing Oklahoma, whereas sometimes that will be a Pittsburgh instead. For instance: Tennessee will play Ball State, Pitt, Army, and UT Martin. The first two of those were scheduled in 2015, whereas Army was scheduled in 2016.
Ryan Schumpert: I’ll start by saying the Pittsburgh game is far from an easy win for Tennessee. I think the Pittsburgh game is about as close to a toss up as any other game on the Vols’ schedule. Will get into it deeper with season predictions later in the week but the Pittsburgh, South Carolina and Kentucky game are the three biggest games on the schedule, in my opinion. However, I agree with your overall premise. Pittsburgh is a pretty easy “big” non-conference game. Don’t expect many bigger games in the next few years either. Next season, Tennessee will play at Pittsburgh in its big out of conference game and in 2023 the Vols make their return trip to Provo to play BYU. Tennessee is set to host Oklahoma in 2024, but the Sooners could be in the SEC by that point. All of those games were scheduled by Dave Hart, John Currie or Phillip Fulmer but the neutral site game against Syracuse in 2025 was scheduled by Danny White. That’s a weak opponent in Atlanta. I think Tennessee should be scheduling more premier non-conference opponents and while that doesn’t have to be Ohio State or Oklahoma, it should be a Virginia Tech, UCLA or Nebraska— who Tennessee is set to play in 2026 and 2027. Those are winnable games against storied programs that will be fun for fans. Also, mark me out on neutral site games. Schedule home-and-homes!
Trey Wallace: It goes back to previous years, as you usually have four non-conference games. This year, the out-of-conference games aren’t all gimmes. Tennessee will have to play their best in week two against Pittsburgh and they will have to take care of their business the rest of the way, if they plan on getting to six wins. Pretty simple, it’s not an SEC only schedule.
Which quarterback goes in after Milton on Thursday?
Ric: In reality, Heupel was very non-committal on an exact backup to Milton during his press conference on Monday. And, on the depth chart, Hooker and Bailey are listed as an -OR- position, meaning it could be either. However, I think both guys have an opportunity to do well. The first game or two will be extra important in deciding a backup and seeing what each guy does in-game. I think Bailey’s Tennessee experience could benefit him in that spot, but I also think Hooker impressed the coaches enough during camp to potentially get that second rotation. Regardless, we will know Tennessee’s true backup after the season starts, and all three guys have had some in-game reps. But for now, I think Harrison bailey could get the second nod in game one.
Ryan: While Heupel was ready to name a starting quarterback Monday he wasn’t ready to name Milton’s backup. And frankly, I think that competition has been tighter than the competition for who will be the starter. Hendon Hooker got more reps running with the twos than Bailey did while we were watching this fall but Hooker is a fifth year senior and Bailey is a sophomore. Tennessee has already had two young quarterbacks transfer in the east two months and I think it makes a lot more sense to keep the young quarterback happy than the fifth year senior— especially when competition has been tight like it has. For that reason I see Bailey gets the first snaps after Milton.
Trey: I think it will be Hendon Hooker, who has performed well during fall camp. Hooker has some of the same skills that Milton has, and can run certain schemes that Heupel is looking for. Now, this is not saying Harrison Bailey can’t run this offense, but I feel that Hendon’s arm is stronger and can make some of the big throws down the field. He seems to have the speed option down pretty well. But lets be honest, anything can happen with the backup position. So, it might be how the game is flowing.
Will Tennessee cover the spread against Bowling Green (-34)?
Ric: 34 points is a whole heck of a lot, even for a team as bad as Bowling Green. I do think Tennessee will handily win this game after getting out to a sustainable lead. I’m not a betting man, but if I was, I think I might stay away from this one. There’s just a lot of unknowns in play. Could Josh Heupel run up the score, or at least not play to hold a lead, in the second half to establish himself? What will the defense look like, knowing that a score or two given up could really make it tough for Tennessee to hit that +34? If Bowling Green were to put up one touchdown and one field goal during the entire game, Tennessee would still need over six touchdowns to cover. I wouldn’t take a week one bet with a new coach, but hey, good luck with it!
Ryan: Bowling Green should be bad. The Falcons went 0-5 in the shortened 2020 season. Still, Georgia State went 2-10 in 2018 and we all know what happened in the Vols’ 2019 season opener. I’m not saying Bowling Green will beat Tennessee or even give them a good game Thursday, but 34 points is a lot. Unless, Heupel’s offense puts on a flawless show, Tennessee’s defense will need to hold Bowling Green to 20 points at the absolute must. I’m not sure I like those odds. Give me Bowling Green +34 week one.
Trey: Thats a tricky one, I don’t care who the starting QB is. Tennessee will try a few different things on offense against the Falcons, hoping they pay off. The thing is, can the Vols handle them on defense, which they should. This will come down to how much control the Vols take on offense and will they establish a running game. Time of possession will be fun to pay attention to this week. I say no.
Which position group could you see overachieving? What about underachieving?
Ric: I have a very good feeling about the wide receivers, although I don’t know if that necessarily counts as overachieving. But I do think they have a very good skillset that just hasn’t been utilized at Tennessee in the past few years. Guys like Hyatt and Tillman are just waiting for the breakout moment. As far as underachieving goes, I’m not sure, just considering Tennessee doesn’t have any world-beating position groups. I guess in the same light, the wide receivers could very well underachieve if the quarterback situation isn’t ironed out. Knowing that Heupel and Golesh like to use the deep ball, the receivers won’t be able to catch anything without an accurate QB.
Ryan: I continue to think the defensive line can overachieve. I still have questions about how good the pass rush can be— and who rushes the passer if Tyler Baron or Byron Young go down— but I’m pretty high on the interior of the defensive line. I think LaTrell Bumphus, Da’Jon Terry and Matthew Butler are going to have strong seasons and there’s depth there. Underachieving is a harder one because there’s not many position units really getting hyped up. I do think the offensive line could be worse than most fans may believe. There’s next to no depth at offensive tackle. Darnell Wright could have a breakout season but that is far from a guarantee and I’ve seen enough of Cade Mays at offensive tackle to feel confident he’s not playing anywhere near his preseason First Team All-SEC selection if he plays offensive tackle all season. While there’s more depth and stability on the inside, don’t underestimate the challenge of replacing Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy.
Trey: I think the TE group will overachieve. As the Vols trout out Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant, it will be interesting to see which one makes the bigger impact down the field. Fant will be used a good amount on the run game, with Warren being a threat down the field. But, with both of these guys getting looks, it could also be an opportunity for guys like Julian Nixon and potentially Miles Campbell.
Prediction for the top receiver? How man catches, yards, touchdowns?
Ric: Let’s go with Cedric Tillman. Man, I think Tillman is ready for an absolute breakout season. He is an experienced leader than has been in the program for a lot of things- both good and bad. He has seen WR’s like Josh Palmer, Jauan Jennings, and Marquez Callaway succeed and gain the support of the fans. With the skillset that he can bring to the table, I won’t be surprised to see Tillman take a massive step forward this year.
Ryan: I’m going to take Jalin Hyatt here— at least for the yards portion of the question. I think he’ll be more of a big play threat out of the slot rather than a possession receiver so he may not lead the team in catches. Heupel has consistently pumped out 800 and 1,000 yard receivers and while I don’t think Hyatt gets to 1,000 yards, I think he gets to 800. So give me 48 catches for 800 yards and six touchdowns.
Trey: I am going with JaVonta Payton. I don’t think he goes absolutely crazy on the field, but I do expect him to be a pivotal weapon for this offense. I could see somewhere in the 600-700 yard total yards on the season, but with a good amount of TD’s coming in space. This could be a very nice season for the transfer, as he rotates in with Velus Jones Jr.