Most Las Vegas gambling books set Tennessee’s regular-season over/under win total at 7.5 with a few settling at an even eight.
Tennessee is looking to hit that over and post a breakout second season under Heupel, but what could cause them to fall short?
Here’s three things that would cause Tennessee to underachieve this season.
The Bottom Falls Out For Tennessee’s Secondary
There’s been optimism around Tennessee’s secondary during fall camp. The group is much deeper than it was a season ago and there’s young talent, including Christian Charles and Tomarrion McDonald, that creates optimism.
But let’s zoom out and look at things from a broad view.
Tennessee gave up more passing yards than any other SEC team last season and lost Alontae Taylor and Theo Jackson to the NFL. Both were legitimately good players and the Vols still struggled badly against the pass.
That wasn’t all on the secondary as Tennessee’s pass rush struggled, but the defensive back room was still a weakness.
In Tennessee’s first game without Alontae Taylor, Purdue torched Tennessee through the air. The Boilermakers totaled 534 passing yards in the Music City Bowl without top receiver David Bell.
There’s reason to believe Tennessee will be better in the backend but there’s also plenty of reasons to believe they’ll be bad. Until growth is shown on Saturdays, this is the most likely factor to make Tennessee underachieve this season.
Tennessee returns four of five starters along the offensive line from last season’s team, but loses Cade Mays. Mays was the Vols’ best offensive lineman a season ago and developed into a high level SEC offensive tackle.
With Mays and fellow offensive tackle Darnell Wright’s progression, Tennessee’s offensive line was solid in 2021.
Wright moved from left to right tackle this offseason and the left tackle competition has been Tennessee’s biggest position battle in fall camp.
Jeremiah Crawford and Florida transfer Gerald Mincey are competing for the starting job and Josh Heupel says both will play in the season opener as the competition spills into the season.
When Mays missed games due to injury a season ago, his replacement — whether it was Dayne Davis or Crawford — struggled. If the Vols can’t adequately protect Hendon Hooker’s blindside than it will be a major limitation for their offense.
Tennessee’s run blocking was solid a season ago but it struggled mightily in short yardage situations and when defenses knew the Vols were running.
If Tennessee doesn’t progress in obvious running situations and struggles to pass protect at left tackle than its offensive ceiling is seriously limited.
SEC Foes Catch Up To Tennessee’s Offensive Scheme
Heupel’s offense had a strong showing in his first season as an SEC head coach. Tennessee got off to a strong start in nearly every game as opponents struggled to adjust to its extremely fast tempo.
With a full year of tape and preparation for Tennessee, it’s possible for opponents to catch up to what the Vols are doing and take away their go-to options.
Offensive coordinator Alex Golesh talked about that possibility earlier this week and the ways the coaching staff has to anticipate and prepare for defensive adjustments.
“You have to have answers,” Golesh said. “You have to anticipate answers to people’s answers. I think a lot of times, the first time you play a team, if you’re referring to specifically the tempo, just like you saw a year ago—teams settle in, players settle in. I think it’s really hard to replicate in practice, so people tend to settle in, you get to the second and third quarter, people are used to it. Play-callers on the other side of the ball figure out what they can and can’t get in at the tempo, so you have to have answers.
In a lot of ways, that’s what I spent all spring doing is, ‘Man, we hurt them here. They’re going to take that away. What’s the next counter punch to that?’ But there was no secret coming in a year ago. We came from a place with a system, from a tempo standpoint, from a spacing standpoint, similar. We’ve grown and evolved in a lot of ways.”
I don’t think Tennessee’s offense is going to take a major step back with opponents catching up to it. For one, Heupel previously spent two years as offensive coordinator at Missouri and his system had success then as well as his first year in Knoxville.
Still, it is a question worth asking and if opponents being better prepared is the answer than Tennessee could take a step back this fall.