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2019 SEC Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about the 2019 Tennessee Volunteers.

Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt – second year at Tennessee and overall (5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Jim Chaney (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Derrick Ansley (first season)

2018 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

2019 Schedule

Aug. 31 – GEORGIA STATE (3:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 7 – BYU (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 14 – CHATTANOOGA (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 21 – at Florida

Oct. 5 – GEORGIA
Oct. 19 – at Alabama

Nov. 2 – UAB
Nov. 9 – at Kentucky
Nov. 23 – at Missouri

What We Know

-The offensive skill position talent does not resemble a team that has won just two of its past 17 SEC games. Jauan Jennings has been a head case during his time in Knoxville, but if he’s healthy and locked in, he and senior Marquez Callaway are a quality wideout tandem. Junior Josh Palmer isn’t going to be a 60-catch player, but he should be good for two or three chunk plays each week. At running back, junior Ty Chandler hasn’t quite lived up to the hype as a top-10 running back in his high school class, but he’s a solid No. 1 back in the SEC. Classmate Tim Jordan and early-entry freshman Eric Gray make this running back group potentially dangerous.

-The secondary is going to be feisty. Defensive back play is, of course, Jeremy Pruitt’s specialty from when he cut his collegial teeth as Nick Saban’s defensive backs coach at Alabama. It’s also the one position where Butch Jones’ recruits have panned out, and Pruitt is now the beneficiary as they reach the peak of their careers. Only one starter departs, and sophomores Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor should make big leaps from promising true freshman seasons.

-This section tends to discuss teams’ strengths, but for Tennessee, its defensive line situation is so concerning that there’s not even much doubt about it. The Vols are going to get pushed around up front. They’ve taken the transfer route to try to plug some holes left by three starters departing – adding in Aubrey Solomon from Michigan (2019 eligibility pending) and junior college nose tackle Emmit Gooden. They also shifted tight end LaTrell Bumphus from offense. This unit has some talent, but there’s no cohesion and no experience at this point.

What We Don’t Know

-Which Jarrett Guarantano shows up? The quarterback that hung tough at Georgia and led a big upset win at Auburn? Or the quarterback that missed on 27 of 47 pass attempts in blowout losses to rivals Florida and Vanderbilt? The redshirt junior showed just enough upside last season to get Vols fans excited, but he was highly unpredictable from week to week. Can the return of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney propel Guarantano to the next level? Chaney is Guarantano’s fourth offensive coordinator in his four seasons in Knoxville.

-How will the offensive line shake out? Questions abound for this group that has battled attrition and misevaluations. The status of standout Trey Smith is up in the air as he continues to fight the effects of a heart condition. The tackle spots could both go to true freshmen – albeit Top 50 recruits – in Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright. While the Volunteers likely won’t receive dividends by playing Morris and Wright until sometime in 2020, it’s probably the right call, especially if Smith (who can play both tackle and guard) is ultimately unable to contribute.

-What happened in the final two games of 2018? Was the team just out of gas after a wild 12 months dating back to the craziest coaching search in college football history? Or were the Vols really four touchdowns worse than both Missouri and Vanderbilt? Tennessee appeared to have turned the corner with wins over two top-15 teams and a narrow loss at South Carolina. Then came two hideous losses to end the season, squelching any momentum Pruitt hoped to take into Year 2. It’s too soon to worry about Florida and Georgia. The Vols need to start by actually being competitive in late November against teams with far fewer resources.

Ranking The Units

1. Defensive Backs
2. Receivers
3. Running Backs
4. Linebackers
5. Quarterbacks
6. Offensive Line
7. Defensive Line

Schedule Analysis

National Ranking: 18
SEC Ranking: 7
Swing Game: Oct. 12 vs. Mississippi State
Trap Game: Nov. 2 vs. UAB

By recent Tennessee schedule standards, this year’s slate isn’t bad. The non-conference is light, with all four games at home and BYU being the toughest. Normally, the SEC West rotation seems to be unlucky for Tennessee, but this season the Vols draw a rebuilding Mississippi State team as the rotating opponent. Getting weeks off before Georgia and Missouri is nice, and there are no instances of road games in consecutive weeks. One concern is two key swing games, Mississippi State and Kentucky, come after opponents’ idle weeks.

Season Prediction

The Volunteers felt like a 5-7 team at this time a year ago, and they went 5-7. This year, with a better schedule and a year of experience for Pruitt, they feel like a 7-5 team. There can’t be a stumble in the non-conference, and the three-year skid against Vanderbilt needs to end. Do that, and then Tennessee just needs to go 2-2 in swing games against Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri and South Carolina. The Vols have the talent to manage to do that, and then they can point to Florida’s return to Knoxville in 2020 as the next “The Vols are back!” opportunity.

Overall Record: 7-5
SEC Record: 3-5
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Liberty Bowl vs. Baylor

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.