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Tennessee Football Lands Top 20 in Post-Spring Analytical Rankings

Tennessee Football
KNOXVILLE, TN – September 24, 2022 – Defensive lineman Omari Thomas #21 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Emma Corona/Tennessee Athletics

Coming off a Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa with a pair of stars leading the charge this offseason, Tennessee lands as a Top 20 team in Bill Connelly’s latest SP+ rankings for ESPN.

The Vols had significant turnover this offseason but have replaced those spots with young, promising talent. Highly touted quarterback Nico Iamaleava will lead the Vols’ offense with a few new receiving weapons on the outside while James Pearce Jr. looks to exceed high expectations as one of the nation’s premier pass rushers.

Josh Heupel returns with a big roster for his fourth season on Rocky Top on the other side of the summer.

Connelly’s analytical rankings aren’t based on opinions and future forecasting but instead built on numbers and data. The SP+ rankings are built on returning production, recent recruiting, and recent history.

“SP+ is a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency,” Connelly notes about the rankings. “It is a predictive measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football, not a résumé ranking, and along those lines, these projections aren’t intended to be a guess at what the AP Top 25 will look like at the end of the season. These are simply early offseason power rankings based on the information we have been able to gather to date.”

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Tennessee lands as the No. 16 team in the Connelly’s rankings with a 19.0 SP+ rating. For context, Georgia is the top team in the rankings with a 36.3 SP+ rating.

Tennessee’s offensive rating slightly outranks their overall ranking at 37.5, which is good for 14th in the nation. The Vols’ defensive rating comes in at 18.5 which is good for 19th in the country. Tennessee’s special teams unit is at 0.2 which is 52nd in the country, though not much behind the leader at 0.7 (Miami-OH).

It’s no surprise that Tennessee’s offense carries the majority of the ranking’s weight, but it may come as a surprise to some to see the Vols’ defense not that far behind compared to previous years. Tennessee’s defensive rating is helped by a crop of fresh new talent either coming into the program or stepping into meaningful roles. The Vols had a veteran-led secondary in 2023 but it was a unit that had a noticeable ceiling on the field. Tennessee’s defensive backs unit will now have more opportunities for players such as Jourdan Thomas and Rickey Gibson III with portal additions from Jermod McCoy and Jaboke Thomas. Tennessee’s secondary still doesn’t project to be game-breakers necessarily, but the fresh talent should inject new life into the Vols’ defense.

Tennessee’s defense also has returning faces that will make noise, some earning more playing time throughout the offseason while others look to build on previous success. The Vols return Keenan Pili and Arion Carter at the linebacker position after injuries shortened their 2023 seasons while second-year LB Jeremiah Telander looks to have taken big strides in the spring. Tennessee also returns Omari Thomas and Bryson Eason to the defensive line as veterans to continue to lead others such as Daevin Hobbs and Tyre West.

Tennessee is the ninth-ranked team from the SP+ rankings behind No. 1 Georgia, No. 4 Texas, No. 5 Alabama, No. 8 Ole Miss, No. 9 LSU, No. 11 Missouri, No. 13 Texas A&M, and No. 15 Oklahoma. The Vols landed as No. 15 in Mark Schlabach’s recent power rankings for ESPN on Monday.

To check out Bill Connelly’s full post-spring SP+ ranking, click here.

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