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Industry Expert Projects Tennessee to Land in the College Football Playoffs

Tennessee Football
Tennessee Football. Photo by Ric Butler/Rocky Top Insider.

With an expanded path to reach the college football playoffs in 2024, teams around the country are vying for one of the additional eight spots in the lead-in to the tournament in December.

The four-team playoff was engrained in college football for ten years but will shift to a bigger field starting in 2024. In addition to all of the conference realignment taking place this summer, there are a number of reasons why the 2024 season will be historic before it even begins.

The top five conference champions will automatically qualify for the tournament while the top four conference champions receive a bye in the first round. The 5th through 8th ranked teams will host their first-round matchup while teams 9-12 will be on the road.

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Tennessee projects as a team that will be riding the line of the College Football Playoffs cut throughout the season.

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach and CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd have Tennessee at No. 15 and No. 16, respectively, while ESPN’s Football Power Index rankings has Tennessee at No. 9. Bill Connelly’s analytical SP+ rankings for ESPN have Tennessee as the No. 16 team in the country.

All four metrics give a combined projection range of a final playoff team to one of the first teams to miss the cut. And all of that is to say that Tennessee projects as pretty much a collective Top 15 team.

On3 Sports’ Andy Staples is high on the Vols, though. In Staples’ post-spring Top 12 power rankings, the On3 expert has Tennessee listed as the No. 11 team on his list. The Vols land as the fifth and final team from the SEC in his rankings behind No. 2 Georgia, No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 Texas, and No. 9 Ole Miss.

Because of the playoff formatting, though, the direct move to the playoff picture isn’t a one-to-one translation from the rankings for most. Despite being the No. 3 team in his rankings, the Tide are the 5-seed in the tournament as the top at-large team with Georgia projected to win the conference. Georgia stays as the 2-seed, Texas bumps to the 7-seed, Ole Miss bumps to the 10-seed, and Tennessee stays as the 11-seed.

As shown in the graphic below, 11-seed Tennessee would take on 6-seed Oregon in Staples’ hypothetical playoff bracket. A trip to Autzen Stadium for the playoffs around the holidays would certainly be a bucket-list destination for many in the Tennessee fanbase.

As a hypothetical winner, the Vols would then take on projected ACC champion Florida State in the quarterfinals and wouldn’t see an SEC team until a semi-final matchup against Georgia, Texas, or Ole Miss. The entire top-right quadrant of Staples’ bracket is SEC, interestingly.

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Josh Heupel’s fourth Tennessee team is an interesting one composed of new and returning players, with some having the opportunity to step up into a bigger role for the first time in their careers.

The two leading names for Tennessee this season will be quarterback Nico Iamaleava and defensive lineman James Pearce Jr.

Iamaleava, a former top-overall recruit from the 2023 class, sat and learned behind Joe Milton III during his freshman season, taking notes from Milton’s role behind Hendon Hooker the year before. The Vols’ historically highly-rated recruit soaked up quite a bit of media attention for a backup quarterback last season but handled his role with class. Iamaleava got his opportunity to lead Tennessee’s offense as the starter during the Citrus Bowl last season, where he accounted for four total touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) en route to a 35-0 victory over No. 24 Iowa.

Iamaleava will now step into the full-time starting role for Tennessee with the keys to Josh Heupel’s offense. The second-year quarterback has drawn praise for his talent and ability on the field this spring and welcomed the challenge of becoming more of a vocal leader now that he is stepping up as the starter. Iamaleava projects to have a Heisman-level ceiling during his career, and the Vols’ coaching staff is looking to push him to success in 2024.

Pearce, on the other hand, returns to Tennessee as the Vols’ top breakout star from the entire 2023 season. The rising junior EDGE rusher was terrific for Tennessee last season with 14.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, even recording a pick-six during the Citrus Bowl victory.

Pearce was an All-SEC First Team selection in 2023 from the AP and the coaches and was named a preseason 2024 All-SEC First Team selection from Athlon Sports recently. The 6-foot-5 defensive lineman also garnered significant buzz this offseason in way-too-early 2025 NFL Draft projections as a contender for the No. 1 overall pick.

Pearce will be a key for Tim Banks’ defense this season in shortening a quarterback’s time with the ball, especially considering Tennessee’s turnover in the secondary this offseason and an adjustment period that will likely take place early in the season.

A trip to the playoffs would rely on impressive play from Nico Iamaleava and Tennessee’s high-tempo offense, which is strengthened by a returning veteran offensive line. But it would also rely on Tennessee’s defense to continue its improvement despite multiple new defensive backs and a linebacker core that is returning from previous season-ending injuries.

Tennessee will kick off its quest for the playoffs with a game against Chattanooga on Aug. 31 in Neyland Stadium at 12:45 p.m. ET.

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