Every college football off season, sports writers and networks put out their versions of the “Way too early top 25”. These lists are always fluid, and are of course subject to the particular creator’s thoughts on the teams they rank and discuss. They typically mean very little, and are really compiled to pique the interest of college football junkies during the long off season. The 2018/2019 college football off season is no different. Various outlets have released their version of the top 25 teams for the 2019 season. ESPN has recently released their top 25 in FPI for the upcoming season. The FPI (football power index) differs slightly from the typical top 25 ranking. FPI is determined through four factors: performance over last four seasons (with emphasis on last season), returning starters at quarterback, on offense overall and on defense, whether a team has a returning head coach, and recruiting rankings over the past four seasons. ESPN’s version has the usual teams at the top, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia being the top three. An interesting addition to this list is the Tennessee Volunteers at #15.
A typical college football fan may look at this ranking with some suspicion. Tennessee finished 5-7 last season, 2-6 in the SEC. The teams ranked just ahead of UT, Michigan State at 14, Ohio State at 13, and Penn State at 12 finished the 2018 season at 7-6, 13-1, and 9-4, respectively. Every team on the list, outside of Tennessee and Florida State, earned a bowl berth last season. The Vols finished last season on a sour note, getting blown out by Missouri (50-17) and Vanderbilt (38-13). On the outside looking in, Tennessee may appear to be a questionable addition to this or any top 25 list. However, the numbers and as many coaches often say the “Jimmies and Joes” paint a somewhat different picture.
At all levels of football, teams improve on their sometimes poor records from the year before. Tennessee has been no stranger to this happening. The 1988 Vols finished the season at 5-6, the 1989 team went 11-1 and won the SEC crown. This 6 win improvement is the largest in Tennessee football history. The 2005 Volunteers also finished the season at 5-6, followed by a 9-4 record in 2006. From 2011 to 2013, Tennessee won 5 games each season, followed by 7 wins in 2014, and 9 in 2015 and 2016. So the 2019 Vols improving on a 5-7 record from the previous year is not out of the question, and has been done several times in Tennessee football history.
The first factor, and arguably the most important one, is who the Vols will actually play in the 2019 season. Gone is West Virginia from the non-conference slate, replaced by Georgia State, BYU, Chattanooga and UAB. Tennessee will play their typical six team schedule from the SEC East, and Alabama and Mississippi State from the west. The Vols will play eight games in Neyland Stadium, a departure from the usual seven home games. For the first time since the 2014 season, Tennessee will not play a neutral site game. We will dive into the schedule more later in this article, but the 2019 gamut appears on paper to set up nicely for the Vols.
As referenced earlier, ESPN FPI takes into account the last four seasons’ records in determining their rankings. The 2018 Vols finished 5-7, 2017 4-8, 2016 and 2015 were both 9-4 records. That is an overall record of 27-23 in the last four campaigns, not exactly top 25 material. Emphasis is placed on the last season’s record, in which the Vols had a losing record. Of course, two of those five wins were against top 25 teams, one being on the road (Auburn). However, this factor may be the weakest argument for Tennessee being on this list. In the past two seasons, the Vols have finished 9-15, a significant drop off from the 18-8 record of the previous two.
The second factor is returning starters, particularly at quarterback. The Vols return a bevy of talent for the 2019 campaign. Tennessee returns ten starters on offense, including its top two rushers and top nine receivers. Eight starters return defensively for the Vols, including the top two tacklers, the leader in sacks, and interceptions. On special teams, the kicker, punter and long snapper are all back for the 2019 season. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano also returns for his redshirt junior season. JG has been has been the subject of much criticism from Vol fans, however no one can deny his toughness and moxie. He has started 18 games the past two seasons, going 6-13 as QB1. However, his stats this past season showed a marked improvement over his 2017 numbers. Guarantano completed 62% of his passes for 1907 yards, with 12 TDs against only 3 interceptions, the lowest of any SEC QB who started all 12 games. His development has been hampered by having three different offensive coordinators during his time on the Hill, with a fourth upcoming this season. However, having experience at this key position can only aid the Vols in improving on their 5-7 record from 2018.
Tennessee also returns its head coach, Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt is back for his second season on Rocky Top, and history shows that a second year coach typically shows improvement on season one. Pruitt has one season under his belt, albeit one that saw the Vols miss out on a bowl game for the second straight year. However, it takes time for a new head coach to mold the team and program to his identity, and JP has made strides in that regard. The Vol coaching staff also made several additions that will pay dividends for them this season and in the years ahead. Derrick Ansley was brought on after most recently serving as defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. Ansley will have the title of defensive coordinator and DBs coach. Pruitt has publicly said that Derrick will call the defense on game days, a departure from the 2018 season where Coach Pruitt had a much more hands on approach. Tee Martin, the 1998 national champion QB at UT, has also “returned home”. Martin previously was offensive coordinator at USC the previous three seasons, earning nation recruiter of the year honors in 2016. His return to Knoxville has been long anticipated and called for by Vol fans, and his addition is one that has been very well received. Perhaps the biggest change to the staff was the hiring away from Georgia of Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator. Chaney is well renowned in college football as a QB guru, mentoring such signal callers as Jake Fromm (UGA), Drew Brees (Purdue), and Jonathan Crompton and Tyler Bray during his previous tenure at Tennessee. Chaney’s offenses have often been dynamic, and he is adept at molding his philosophy around the players on the roster. Crompton enjoyed the best season of his college career (2009) under Coach Chaney, and Tyler Bray was able to put up great numbers in the Chaney ran offense between 2010-2012. The Vol coaching staff as whole is arguably one of the best since the Fulmer era, and this should equate to an improvement over the five win total from 2018.
The ESPN FPI ranking also takes into account the past four recruiting cycles in their analysis. Tennessee has ranked 12th (2019), 21st (2018), 17th (2017), and 14th (2016) the past four seasons in national recruiting according to Rivals. Of course, many of those players have either transferred, gone on to the NFL, or have given up the sport. Recruiting rankings are not always an indicator of how well that particular player or team will perform. The individual players do not always mesh with the coaching staff or offensive/defensive philosophy. The coaching staff must also be able to develop that player talent, something that the previous regime under Butch Jones was often criticized over. However, Tennessee has been ranked in the top 25 nationally in recruiting each of the past four seasons, and ESPN views this as a factor that will lead the Vols to being successful in the 2019 season.
The Vols being ranked 15th in the preseason ESPN FPI top 25 may seem a bit lofty to many. For example, in the final 2018 NCAA rankings, Texas placed 15th. The Longhorns played for the Big 12 title, and finished 10-4 on the season. West Virginia was just below at 16th, going 8-4. That being said, to finish somewhere between 15th and 25th, Tennessee would have to improve anywhere between 3 and 5 games on the win total in 2019. As was previously stated in this article, the Vols have done this before. Of course, all this comes down to who the team actually plays on Saturdays this fall. The Vols open with Georgia State at home, followed by BYU and Chattanooga, also in Knoxville. They then go to the Swamp to face Florida, then return home for two weeks to play Georgia (this date may change) and Mississippi State. The Vols then play at Alabama, South Carolina and UAB at home, before rounding out the season at Kentucky and Missouri, and against Vandy in Neyland. Having eight home games will greatly assist the team, as having home field advantage in two thirds of your games is a great bonus. The Vols should go 4-0 in non-conference play. Playing UGA, South Carolina, Vandy, and Mississippi State in Knoxville will be a big factor. Tennessee has had much recent and long term success against Kentucky. If the Vols can take care of business in non-conference, beat Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vandy (this has to happen sometime, right?) and at least one of the remaining games, that would put them at 8-4 on the year. While this would not be a season for the ages, it would show a marked improvement over the 4-8 and 5-7 record over the two previous years, and would place the Vols somewhere in the bottom third of the top 25 at year’s end. Based on the factors discussed above, and who is on the Vols schedule, the number 15 ranking in the ESPN FPI may be lofty, if only slightly. Don’t be surprised if this 2019 edition of the men in orange and white turn some heads and win eight or nine games. Only time will tell.