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RTI Mailbag: Window Opening For Tennessee Football?

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee football is preparing for a critical matchup at No. 18 Kentucky and Tennessee basketball is just six days away from the start of the 2021-22 season.

The RTI team tackles all your questions on the final month of the football season and the upcoming basketball season in this week’s mailbag article.

Does Tennessee hear anything from the NCAA by the end of the season? Do they take a bowl ban?

Ric Butler: I don’t believe anything substantial will happen by the end of the season, and to be honest, I’m not even sure about the best timeline to give for that. We know that Tennessee has been in full cooperation, though. Sticking with Tennessee’s perspective but going to the second part of the question, no, I don’t think Tennessee will self-impose a bowl ban for this season. I think when you look at the strides that Tennessee’s program as a whole has taken since a year ago at this time, you have to allow the reward (a bowl game) for the ones that put in the work. When Tennessee didn’t announce any kind of ban before the season, I was a little surprised. Towards the beginning of the season, most were going back and forth about whether a bowl game was even achievable or not. Now, heading into Week 10, the Vols are two wins away from a bowl game with two very winnable games in their final four. The fan support has significantly shifted in the favor of head coach Josh Heupel and his staff, pointing towards Tennessee’s enthusiasm for a bowl game. Tennessee most recently made a bowl game in the 2019-2020 season, which, in fairness, feels like much longer ago than it is. I do think that a bowl game would be a monumental way to cap off Heupel’s inaugural season, for several different reasons. And with the way that things have gone until now, I think that Tennessee will both make and play in a bowl game.

Ryan Schumpert: No and no. Who knows when Tennessee will hear back from the NCAA with any actual punishment. The NCAA still has punished LSU, Kansas or Auburn— though they implanted a postseason ban last season— basketball. Will Wade is on wire taps talking about paying players. One of Bruce Pearl’s former assistants plead guilty of bribery in a federal court. There’s ample evidence of Bill Self being involved in illegal recruiting activities. So who knows when Tennessee ends up learning its punishment. The dark cloud that can create over the program isn’t ideal, but the NCAA’s importance lessens with every passing day. I’m not sure they have quite the bite they used to. It’s why I found it incredibly idiotic that Tennessee decided to report itself to the NCAA instead of paying Pruitt’s buyout. And at this point I would be shocked if Tennessee gives itself a bowl ban this season. I thought that’s what they’d do when they fired Pruitt and hired Heupel but once they didn’t announce it before the season I didn’t think it was likely. Now, with a bowl appearance extremely likely and legit fan support behind Heupel I would be stunned if the Vols decided to ban themselves from a bowl this season.

How does Tennessee keep Will Levis in the pocket and not let him beat them with his legs?

Ric: I don’t expect Levis’ legs to play too much into their offensive gameplan, except to extend plays or to catch the defense off-guard. Tennessee certainly likes to run with Hooker, and we know that Hooker himself likes to run, but Hendon has 50 more carries than Levis and over 200 more yards on the ground. I would think that Kentucky is more afraid of Tennessee’s running quarterback than vice versa. That being said, I think one thing that Tennessee will try to do is continue to bring solid containment pressure from the defensive line and edge rushers. Let’s not forget, Tennessee is one of, if not the best team in the conference at taking guys down behind the line of scrimmage. I think a large credit to that is Tennessee’s push rush from the linemen and a combination of the linebackers. Additionally, we saw both Corral and Young have success against Tennessee with their legs. However, I do think the open week was vital for Tennessee and will provide the Vols with fresh legs against a potent Kentucky offense. I also think that having some kind of spy available will be important, especially during those plays that break down and then get extended from the quarterback. But all in all, I think that a strong containing pressure from the defensive line, combined with smart play from the linebackers should be able to limit Levis on his feet. Again, I don’t think he is on the same level, from a mobile perspective, as Corral, Young, and especially Hooker. But nonetheless, he has the availability to use his feet, like most college quarterbacks these days.

Ryan: Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks was asked a similar question on Tuesday and his answer was essentially to stay the course and not do anything crazy. Of course, he could just be saying that to stay coy about the Vols’ game plan for Saturday. Still, I wouldn’t expect to see any major change. Levis is a capable runner but is far worse with his legs than Kenny Pickett, Matt Corral and Emory Jones. I would say he’s a worse runner than Bryce Young too — though Young doesn’t like to use his legs. I’ve been of the opinion that the quarterback spy is the way to go on third-and-longs for this defense. I’d still drop eight into coverage while rushing three. Tennessee’s defensive line hasn’t consistently gotten pressure while bringing four so I like blitzing three. Tennessee spied Matt Corral often but Ole Miss did a great job of having the center block the spy on designed quarterback runs and even some scrambles. However, Kentucky doesn’t like to use Levis in designed runs the way Ole Miss uses Corral so I’d be surprised if that ends up being an issue.

With Florida seemingly burning down by the second how close is Tennessee to becoming the second-best team in the SEC East?

Ric: I know this is against the question, but I don’t feel like there’s a good answer for that. How many times in the last decade has Tennessee had a path to “becoming the second-best team in the SEC East”- more than a few. Not to say that’s a bad way of thinking, it’s just not how I’m looking at the race to climb up the SEC East. Instead, I look at it backward, rather than tossing Tennessee up there with the elite. It’s a process. The first step of that process is establishing dominance over the four other teams in the division that Tennessee should be able to beat: Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri. Right now, with Kentucky ahead of Tennessee this season, that isn’t a checked box (although it could be). But even then, I’m not talking about one season of dominance over those four. No, it needs to be a continued success. Tennessee will never be the outright and legitimate second-best team in the league until Kentucky, SC, Vandy, and Missouri are sure-fire wins by the year. Also, even with Florida trending in the wrong direction, it’s not like I have overwhelming confidence that Tennessee is the team to inevitably take that spot. Fans in Knoxville have been disappointed before when trying to figure out how to mash Tennessee into one of the best spots in the SEC. However, I’m suggesting a different approach, one that goes from the back to the front. Tennessee has to establish itself as above everyone not named Florida and Georgia before competing with them. I really do believe that. Then, you can approach the conversation of how Tennessee stacks up against the Gators and the Dawgs. Anyone is free to think how they think, but I have seen that story play out too many times. So for my money, Tennessee’s proximity to that second spot is entirely and firstly dependant on how consistently they are able to beat UK, SC, Vandy, and Mizzou.

All of that being said, I do think Tennessee is trending in the right direction. Kentucky is a good team right now, but Tennessee is gaining steam and momentum very quickly in Heupel’s first season. Who knows, maybe this will be the first year of that streak.

Ryan: It’s been a tough week for Dan Mullen at Florida. On top of his team’s 2-4 SEC record and blowout loss to rival Georgia, Mullen decided he’d “talk about recruiting in recruiting season”. Uhhhh, maybe that’s not the smartest thing to say when you’ve lost two of your three highest rated recruits in the last month. Especially when Kirby Smart talked about how you have to always recruit after his team with superior talent beat Mullen’s for the third time in four seasons. So, yeah, things are deteriorating in Gainesville. I’d still be surprised if Mullen is fired this season but the seat is getting hot and this is a program that fired Jim McElwain coming off back-to-back SEC east titles so never say never. To your question, I’m not sure Tennessee is “close” to being the second best team in the SEC east, but a window is certainly opening. Josh Heupel has given Vol fans a reasonable expectation that he can get Tennessee back to winning seven to nine games a season. But the top of that hump is just so hard to get past. Nick Saban is talking about coaching for 10 more years and Smart and Georgia are showing no signs of slowing down on the recruiting trail (on top of having the nation’s best team). Heupel needs to capitalize on a down Florida. It’s going to be his best chance to get a win over one of Tennessee’s three big rivals. Still, Florida has more talent than Tennessee right now. The Gators aren’t going to have a major drop off in talent under a new coach either. However, the talent gap is going to be much smaller between Tennessee and Florida then Tennessee and Alabama/Georgia. That’s why I say there’s an opportunity for Heupel to elevate Tennessee’s program and at least get them on the same level as Florida. Don’t sleep on Kentucky either here. Stoops’ program doesn’t look like one that’s going to elevate to the top of the SEC, but still, Kentucky has had more sustained success than Tennessee recently, and Stoops and the Wildcats are recruiting better than Heupel and the Vols.

What are your expectations for this Tennessee basketball team? Is it Final Four or bust without injuries?

Ric: Well, I think the path is set for them better than it has been in recent years, which is saying something impressive. To me, college basketball is the hardest final prediction, simply because the NCAA tournament is probably the hardest thing in sports to predict. That being said, I do have many expectations for this Tennessee basketball team. First and foremost, I expect Tennessee to compete with the best of the best in the SEC, and I expect the Vols to be able to win some big games on the road. With Kennedy Chandler’s emergence in just one exhibition game, I do think that Tennessee will have a true point guard that can help lead their team in the most challenging of circumstances. Additionally, I expect a solid seed in the tournament, and I expect a win in the first round at the very minimum. Last year, as everyone knows, was a wash. Tennessee had two first-round NBA draft picks, with another current NBA player (Pons) and still couldn’t make it past Oregon State. So for that reason alone, knowing the talent that will likely be in the NBA next year, Tennessee has to make some noise in the tournament. I would say that a S16 appearance for this team is an absolutely reasonable goal. It’s hard to say much more than that, again, knowing the insanity of that tournament. But regardless, Tennessee needs a tournament presence this year. Lastly, I expect them to be able to compete for a high ranking throughout the season, and I expect Tennessee to defend their home court well. That last part is more so just knowing the advantage of playing in Knoxville, but, those are important games for Tennessee to win nonetheless.
Ryan: Certainly don’t think it’s Final Four or bust without injuries. I don’t think Tennessee basketball has hardly ever had a season that was Final Four or bust. That’s just a really hard standard for a sport that’s postseason is so unpredictable and matchup driven. There’s other factors that affect whether Tennessee’s season is successful or not. On top of regular season wins and performance, the chance to win the SEC Tournament or SEC Regular Season Title would make this season a success without a major first round upset. So what are my expectations for this team? I expect them to finish in the top five of the SEC and to make the NCAA Tournament somewhere around a three to six-seed. Tennessee’s realistic goals are certainly higher than that though. The Vols’ are more than capable of finishing top four in the SEC and have the talent to compete for a conference title. I think making it to the Sweet 16 is a very fair goal for this team. I don’t think they’re a lock to make it by any means— especially with Rick Barnes’ recent history making it out of the second weekend— but this team has the talent, veteran leadership and point guard play to win two games in March. If Tennessee makes it to the Sweet 16 then the Vols are just 40 minutes away from their second ever Elite Eight. That would no doubt be a very successful season for Tennessee.

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