Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt
2018 Record: 5-7, 2-6 Conference
O/U 6.5 wins (O -150, U +120)
To Make Final 4: +17500
The Tennessee Volunteers rebounded in a big way from a horrible 2017 season and finished 2018 with five wins. It was not a smashing success per se, but it was obviously a step in the right direction—and Vegas oddsmaker at Bovada set the over/under on Vols’ wins at 6.5 for this season. Jeremy Pruitt was something of a first season success, but building on that will mean continuing the great play against elite opponents. Tennessee, despite its losing record, knocked off AP-ranked Auburn and Kentucky. With a top-15 recruit class, it is poised to continue the improvement, and having a new offensive coordinator in Jim Chaney and a new wide receiver coach in Tee Martin helps that cause. Martin is a former Volunteer receiver and an he was excellent.
Jarrett Guarantano had his big games. The quarterback threw for 396 yards and 30 points in the win over Auburn and he had 412 yards and 24 points in the win over Kentucky. Consistency is needed. That might come with a Chaney’s help as OC. He hails from Georgia and was responsible for the emergence of Jake Fromm who threw for 2,700-plus yards. The Vols lack depth at QB, but if Guarantano pans out that will not be much of a problem. Keller Chryst comes in as a graduate transfer, and the Vols have another scholarship athlete behind him third-string.
The offensive line was an area of focus in the spring. Guarantano too often was left scrambling and running due to poor block coverage. The Vols addressed this by signing top linemen Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris. Both should be two of the best freshman OL players in the nation. At offensive tackle, the Vols are hoping junior Trey Smith can be a big player, and it is also hoping he has his full health with him. Smith suffered from blood clots in his lungs that have mostly thwarted his NCAA career to this point.
Wide receivers Marquez Callaway and Juaun Jennings are both versatile options for Guarantano to air it out to. Callaway is a deep threat, while Jennings is a playmaker capable of burning defenses. Josh Paler also will factor in after catching 23 passes for 484 yards and two TDs a year ago. Tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson has the hands and size to be another target, and he was one of the best TEs coming from the JUCO ranks. The Volunteers also have plenty of talent in the backfield, where it will hand it off to junior Ty Chandler who was the featured back a year ago. Chandler is also a good receiver and will see his pass plays. No. 2 back Eric Gray is just an incoming freshman but he should be an immediate impact. Tim Jordan also will vie for some carries, and his 118-yards rushing effort against West Virginia was outstanding but has yet to be replicated. If he really is that good, he is the definite No. 2 option.
The defensive line needs as much work as the offensive line. Pruitt has to replace four starters from last year’s unit, and those four accounted for 150 tackles, nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss. JUCO prospect Savion Williams should be a big help, and Emmit Gooden is solid as the lone returning starter. This DL will be UT’s weakness most likely.
The Vols are stronger at linebacker where it is transitioning to a 3-4 scheme still. Daniel Bituli and Darrell Taylor are both going to start and factor hugely. Pruitt also recruited a couple of very strong players in Henry To’oto and Quavaris Crouch. Crouch is competing for one of the two opening starting roles still available but he will probably land it. The secondary is strong to compensate for this otherwise weak defense. Sophomore CB Bryce Thompson made the Freshman All-American team last year, and Alontae Taylor, Baylen Buchanan, and Nigel Warrior all return as starters. Pass coverage will be a strength, and teams will probably exploit that by running it to the edges where the Volunteers defense is most vulnerable. When a team has a known weakness like the Vols linebackers, teams will adjust to exploit it.
Brent Cimaglia hit 77 percent of his field goals in 2018. He missed just one inside 40-yards. Punter Joe Doyle was great at limiting returns. The Vols did not allow any punts or kickoffs to be returned for a touchdown last season. Punts will be returned by Callaway. He returned a punt for TD versus Charlotte. Kickoff returns are yet to be decided, but Chandler and Thompson are the top candidates to do it.
Pruitt still is in the process of making this program his as he enters year two. The additions he made to his coaching staff begin to show his hand in this regime, but the Volunteers uncertainty on both the OL, DL, and QB position can hardly be ignored. That is just too many flags to be very confident that a massive improvement is assured. Tennessee will likely finish a game above or below .500 and barely make a bowl, and the O/U on 6.5 wins is a really tough call for futures bettors.
Prediction: 7 wins (over)