If the Tennessee Vols had played a 12-game regular season in 2020, they likely would’ve been a five or six-win team (UT won three SEC games in 2014, which led to a six-win regular season).
That’s not to excuse going 3-7, it’s to highlight that Tennessee’s 2020 season still doesn’t quite compare to the Vols’ 4-8 season in 2017. Or even their 5-7 season in 2018.
Tennessee should be in a better position — talent-wise — to have success in 2021.
It all starts at the quarterback position. Tennessee will have three former four-star quarterbacks at the top of the depth chart in sophomore Harrison Bailey, true freshman Kaidon Salter, and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker.
All three of those quarterbacks bring different skillsets to Knoxville. And all of them have the talent to be immensely successful in the SEC.
The quarterbacks will have some nice offensive weapons at their disposal, too.
Wide receiver Velus Jones Jr, who really came on at the end of the 2020 season, is returning to Rocky Top for his final year of eligibility. Jones is a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball. There’s also sophomore wide receiver Jalin Hyatt — a player that I think should’ve been more involved in Tennessee’s offense as a true freshman (Hyatt had 20 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns, good numbers for a true freshman).
On top of the talent already on the roster, the Vols also have some quality wide receiver talent in their 2021 signing class.
Four-star wide receiver Julian Nixon is a big target (6-foot-3/230 lbs) that could be a mismatch for defenses. There’s also four-star wide receive Walker Merrill, who might be one of the more underrated players that Tennessee signed during this recruiting cycle.
The running back position is where the Vols are in really good shape — even with the departure of Nashville native Ty Chandler.
Junior running back Eric Gray is the star of the show in the Vols’ backfield. Gray is a dynamic running back who has the talent to be one of the top offensive players in the SEC. He’ll be complemented by sophomores Jabari Small, Tee Hodge, and Dee Beckwith. Tennessee also signed four-star running back Cody Brown, who is rated as the No. 10 running back in the nation.
If the Vols somehow manage to land LSU tight end Arik Gilbert (who is in the transfer portal and played with Bailey in high school), then Tennessee will have an offense that’s capable of beating anyone in the SEC East.
The only question moving forward is can the Vols get the most out of their talent?
Tennessee’s biggest issue on offense in 2020 was subpar quarterback play. That shouldn’t be a problem in 2021 with Bailey, Salter, and Hooker in the mix (as long as the Vols have a quality quarterback coach, currently it’s Chris Weinke).
I know 2020 was a rough season for the Vols. But Tennessee isn’t as far away as some folks might think. They’re not going to be a threat to win the SEC, but the Vols should still be able to win seven or eight games in 2021 — especially with a favorable schedule (Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, and South Alabama are the non-conference games).
Now, will Jeremy Pruitt be the guy who leads the program in 2021?
That’s still to be decided. But if Pruitt returns, he’ll have no excuses if he fails.
Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports/Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports