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Tennessee Makes Surprising Jump to Top 10 of ESPN FPI Rankings

Tennessee Football Rankings
Tennessee HC Josh Heupel. Photo via Tennessee Athletics.

With it being nearly the dead middle of the offseason and summer rapidly approaching, college football fans haven’t had much to talk about besides some sporadic transfer portal activity and the EA Sports video game release on the horizon.

ESPN gave football fans something to talk about on Monday, though, releasing their 2024 Football Power Index (FPI) rankings and projections.

The FPI includes “forecasts for every team’s record, its chances of winning a conference title, and of course, its probability to make the playoff and win the championship,” according to ESPN.

While Tennessee has commonly been looked at as a Top 15 team heading into Josh Heupel’s fourth season on Rocky Top, the Vols are one of the more surprising teams in the FPI rankings as a Top 10 pick.

ESPN’s Football Power Index has Tennessee Football at No. 9 in the rankings with a 16.6 FPI rating. For comparison’s sake, the top team (Georgia) has a rating of 26.8 while the last team in the Top 25 (SMU) has a 9.0 rating.

Tennessee’s projected win total is set at 8.6, which is near what the Vols ended the 2023 regular season at with eight wins and four losses. The Vols have a 36.6 percent chance to make the playoffs, ninth in the nation, and a 2.6 percent chance to win the National Championship.

The Football Power Index rankings track “each team’s strength relative to an average FBS squad” on the offensive, defensive, and special teams levels. Those numbers are then used to simulate the season schedule “20,000 times” to see what the averages shake out to.

More from RTI: Anonymous SEC Coach Praises Tennessee and Nico Iamaleava, Puts Vols on the Outside Looking In

Most experts are high on Tennessee with returning pieces such as the offensive line, James Pearce Jr., and receiving weapons Bru McCoy and Squirrel White. But Tennessee also has enough newcomers or first-time starters that leave enough wiggle room for a “prove it” opportunity throughout the early season.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach and CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd have Tennessee at No. 15 and No. 16, respectively, in their own way-too-early power rankings, acknowledging the fact that while Tennessee has Nico Iamaleava behind center and a new secondary on defense, there’s still an element to the Vols that needs to prove their ability this season due to the turnover.

That’s what makes the FPI ranking so fascinating… ESPN’s simulations are factoring in projected success for Iamaleava and the rest of the Vols’ newcomers with the ninth FPI rating in the nation but still only have Tennessee with less than nine projected wins.

Perhaps the gauntlet of the SEC schedule plays into the FPI’s projected win total for Tennessee. With the Vols as the ninth team in the rankings, Tennessee has three 2024 opponents in the eight slots higher than them (1. Georgia, 5. Alabama, 8. Oklahoma). Kansas, for instance, has a slightly higher projected win total at 8.7 despite being at No. 15 in the FPI rankings from the Texas and Oklahoma-less Big 12 conference.

ESPN’s FPI gives Tennessee an 8.5 offensive rating, a 7.6 defensive rating, and a 0.5 special teams rating to get to the total of 16.6.

Tennessee also has three of the 20 “biggest games of the ’24 schedule based on schools’ combined rankings” chart, though all are in the bottom half.

Alabama at Tennessee in Week 8 comes in as the 11th biggest matchup while Tennessee at Georgia comes in as the 12th biggest matchup. Tennessee’s SEC opener at Oklahoma lands as the 17th biggest game of the season.

It’s not out of the realm of possibilities for Tennessee to be a Top 10 team this season, but it is a bit surprising to see ESPN’s FPI project the Vols with the No. 9 ranking. That means that their simulations typically resulted in good production from Tennessee’s roster this fall. That’s the interesting part.

To see the full initial 2024 FPI rankings from ESPN on Monday, click here.

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