After a five game winning streak to close the 2019 regular season, it’s safe to say the Tennessee Vols are trending in the right direction.
If Tennessee wins their upcoming bowl game (opponent and bowl game is still to be determined), they’ll finish the season with an 8-5 record.
Regardless of what happened early in the season (the 0-2 start), I think nearly every Vol fan in the country would be thrilled with a 8-5 record in Jeremy Pruitt’s second season as the program’s head coach. Especially considering the mess Pruitt inherited.
Obviously, fans will want to see continued improvement in 2020. And I definitely think the Vols will improve.
But I’m not sure how much the improvement will reflect in UT’s final record next season.
It’s way too early for 2020 win/loss projections, but after taking a quick glance at Tennessee’s schedule nexts season, I’d bet on the Vols finishing the regular season 8-4. A bowl game win would get them to 9-4.
On paper, the Vols should lose to Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Now, obviously Tennessee could steal one of those games (or maybe more), but they won’t be the favorite in any of those matchups.
The real problem in those four losses is the matchup on the road against Oklahoma. The Vols almost certainly aren’t winning that game (unless Lincoln Riley surprises everyone and jumps to the NFL, even then the Sooners would still be favored). They truly have nothing to gain by playing that game (and don’t even mention road game experience — UT gets plenty of that in the SEC).
If that game was replaced with a matchup against a lower level Power-5 team (maybe a team like Wake Forest, who would absolutely love hosting a team like Tennessee), it would massively change the perception of UT’s 2020 season.
Tennessee going 9-3 during the regular season, with a chance to go 10-3 (or 11-2 if they steal a game against Florida, Georgia or Alabama — which, again, is possible), would be an incredible achievement for Pruitt. And it would have a dramatic effect on recruiting.
For the time being, the Vols are going to have a hard time consistently winning more than 9-10 games in a season. It’s just the nature of the SEC. When they’re matched up against a weaker SEC West opponent (it’s Arkansas in 2020), they absolutely have to take advantage of it. In 2021, the Vols play Ole Miss. But in 2022, it’s LSU in Baton Rouge. The Vols should be hitting their stride under Pruitt by 2022, but they’ll likely be underdogs in that matchup.
That’s why Tennessee, if at all possible, needs to find a way out of their 2020 matchup against the Sooners.
There’s simply nothing to gain from playing that game.
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