Written by: Jake Wallman (@WallmanE75)
It’s that time of year again, i’ve already seen pictures of Halloween candy hitting the shelves in stores. Plus Starbucks debuted their annual “Pumpkin Spice” flavor this week, even though summer’s just now dwindling down.
Game week is finally here for the Tennessee Volunteers and the long what for Big Orange football is finally over. The boys in orange kickoff their 2018 campaign under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt this Saturday, Sept. 1st in Charlotte, N.C. in the Belk Kickoff Classic against the 17th-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers.
The Vols are coming off a rough 2017 campaign that ended with a 4-8 record, the worst in school history and also saw the firing of Butch Jones after a lopsided loss to Missouri on November 11th.
Fans in Knoxville seem to have plenty of positive vibes despite the team coming off of an uncharacteristically down year. Here are my game-by-game picks for the 2018 Tennessee Vols.
Week One (Sept. 1) Tennessee vs. No.12 West Virginia in Charlotte, N.C.
Mountaineers Head Coach Dana Holgorsen enters his eighth year in Morgantown and each year he’s been searching for the “lightning in a bottle” type of magic he found in year one with a 2011 Orange Bowl victory.
This game is set as the CBS Game of the Week as the college football season gets underway and is set for a 3:30 p.m. eastern kickoff. Most of the nation will tune in for this one with Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson in the booth.
West Virginia is returning an offense that might as well be ranked in the top 10 with Will Grier at quarterback.
A lot of people see him as a Heisman dark horse if he can stay healthy and he is considered one of the best in the country to play his position.
Along with him returns a veteran offensive line and a talented bunch of receivers for Grier to throw to.
But with optimism comes a downside.
West Virginia has no defense and last year there wasn’t a game where they gave up less than 100 rushing yards. They gave up 367 rushing yards alone to Kansas (yes, the team who has lost 46 straight road games). Anytime you can rush for 367 total yards it’s a good day at the office, but rushing yards alone like that are rarely seen.
I’m not saying this is going to be a blowout in Tennessee’s favor.
Tennessee has a lot of questions in the secondary and on defense in general. Don’t be surprised if Tennessee carves up West Virginia by running the ball. However, I think West Virginia escapes this early season test.
West Virginia 31, Tennessee 28
Week Two (Sept. 8) Tennessee vs. ETSU
A Tennessee son returns to Neyland Stadium in this week two matchup as Randy Sanders, a native of Morristown, Tenn. located just 45 minutes from Knoxville, is in his first head coaching job at East Tennessee State.
Sanders spent over two decades along the Volunteer sideline. He played for Tennessee from 1984-88, then got his coaching career started under then head coach Johnny Majors.
He got his big shot in 1998 when he was named the offensive coordinator after David Cutcliffe left for Ole Miss and he held the role until 2005.
He went on to spend six years at Kentucky as both the Wildcats QB coach and offensive coordinator, then four years at Florida State as their co-offensive coordinator before being hired at ETSU last December.
The Buccaneers take on the Mars Hill Lions in Sanders’ debut the week before. However, it’ll be a different scene when they make the one and a half hour trek from Johnson City the next week. Tennessee rolls in this one.
Tennessee 49, ETSU 10
Week Three (Sept. 15) Tennessee vs. UTEP
Few Division I teams were worse than Tennessee was in 2017, but the Miners of the University of Texas- El Paso were one of those teams, going winless last season.
They also have celebrated just one winning season since 2005.
I can sit here all day and give you more and more facts about how bad UTEP has been, but I’m gonna save everyone the time.
I’ll be surprised if Tennessee doesn’t win by three or four scores in week three.
Tennessee 42, UTEP 7
Week Four (Sept. 22) Tennessee vs. Florida
Now, the long and excruciating grind of the SEC schedule begins.
Florida makes its return to Knoxville and they also have a new head coach roaming the sidelines. The one thing that Florida’s Dan Mullen has over Pruitt is he knows what it’s like being a head coach in the SEC, doing it at Mississippi State from 2009-17.
However, that’s one of the only edges the Gators have over Tennessee.
I think Tennessee is better at quarterback and I think Tennessee’s wide receivers have the much needed experience they didn’t have last year.
Also with Tennessee switching to a multiple defense with a base 3-4 look, a lot more players will fit this scheme and be comfortable in it for the Vols.
The Big Orange will also have the crowd on their side as Neyland Stadium will be filled to the brim for this big time SEC rivalry game. This is one of those games that could make the difference between 7-5 or 6-6, maybe even 5-7. It’s crucial for both teams goals in 2018, but only one team can leave with the win.
Tennessee 28, Florida 17
Week Five (Sept. 29) Tennessee @ Georgia
Coming into this one at 3-1 could be a momentous occasion for the Vols. The last time this team visited Athens, the game ended with Jauan Jennings going up and coming down with a Hail Mary on the last play to steal a victory. I don’t see it playing out like that this year.
If you thought Georgia was good last year, just wait until this year because they are going to be even better.
Just about every writer has them picked to win the East and start the season ranked third in the AP pre-season poll.
Being four full games into the season, hopefully players are settled into their roles whether they are starting or a role player. However, in the end, Georgia is just too stacked for the Vols in 2018.
Georgia 45, Tennessee 20
Week Six (Oct. 6) OPEN DATE
The Vols get a chance to get healthy and get some much needed rest early in October and they will need it to survive the month.
Week Seven (Oct. 13) Tennessee @ Auburn
I’ve looked at the Auburn game over and over and it just seems like a peculiar game on the Vols schedule in 2018.
Gus Malzahn is known for flirting with disaster in a lot of games and keeping it close with teams he should’ve disposed of early on. Auburn needed overtime in 2015 to get past Jacksonville State, a powerhouse at the FCS level, but a team the the Tigers should have put away by the end of the third quarter.
Plus look to last year when the Tigers blew a 20-0 lead at LSU, gaining only 54 yards in the second half and resulting in a 27-23 loss to LSU. Of course, they also were the only team to beat Alabama last season.
Auburn returns plenty of talent on the defensive front to give offensive coordinators nightmares about protecting the QB.
They also return Jarrett Stidham and Malzahn tends to succeed when he has a proven quarterback under center.
No, Stidham isn’t much of a runner like Nick Marshall or Cam Newton was, but he uses his legs when he needs to and can be affective as a runner at times.
Like Tennessee though, the questions for the Tigers come in the secondary where they have found a lack of depth. I think this one could get interesting down on the Plains.
Auburn 27, Tennessee 21
Week Eight (Oct. 20) Tennessee @ Alabama
“The Third Saturday in October.”
The Third Saturday in October on of the best weekends in the history of the SEC.
It’s also one of college football’s most storied rivalries, but for the past decade it’s been a one sided story in favor of Alabama. One story in Tuscaloosa in 2018 is who will be Nick Saban’s quarterback going into their week one game with Louisville.
It hasn’t mattered who has been at quarterback for the Tide over the their past decade of dominance.
Since the Vols’ losing streak started in 2007, Alabama has outpaced Tennessee 396-116 and only two of those games were separated by a touchdown or less.
Alabama is ranked preseason No.1 again and is more than ready for another national title run. Tennessee fans just hope that they don’t come out of this one too roughed up and are still intact enough for run at a bowl in the last month of the season.
Alabama 45, Tennessee 13
Week Nine (Oct. 27) Tennessee @ South Carolina
This is where things get tricky. Tennessee concludes its murder’s row stretch with a trip to Columbia to play the Gamecocks.
Their coach Will Muschamp has had Tennessee’s number since he joined the SEC.
Muschamp is a perfect 6-0 vs the Vols after a four-year run at Florida and two years at South Carolina.
Jake Bentley has come into his own at quarterback and should be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC in 2018.
What will define this game is if Tennessee still has its horses on the field that it started with in week one. I’m not saying Tennessee can’t win without let’s say Ty Chandler on offense or Nigel Warrior on defense, but if key guys are sidelined I see it being difficult for the Vols to end the season on a high note.
South Carolina 34, Tennessee 24
Week Ten (Nov. 3) Tennessee vs. Charlotte
Homecoming on “The Hill.”
I’m going to be honest, I don’t know a lot about the Charlotte 49ers.
They suspended their football program after the 1948 season. After years of organizing and meetings, the Board of Trustees voted in 2008 to bring the football program back for the 2013 season.
In their first two seasons, they were an FCS team and won five games in each season.
Since moving up to the FBS level, Charlotte’s best finish is 4-8 in 2016.
The Vols will finish their non-conference slate at 3-1 and beat Charlotte handedly.
Tennessee 48, Charlotte 6
Week Eleven (Nov. 10) Tennessee vs. Kentucky
The rivalry that used to reward a beer barrel to the victor returns to Knoxville for the 114th edition.
Mark Stoops has had Kentucky trending upward lately and the Wildcats have posted back-to-back winning seasons with bowl visits.
However, they haven’t been able to take the next step under Stoops.
The Wildcats do have reasons for optimism besides the last two seasons.
They return a highly touted group of juniors and seniors that looks to make a lot of noise in 2018. One of those experienced juniors is Benny Snell Jr. at running back. Snell has posted more than 1,000 yards on the ground in his first two years and found the endzone 19 times in 2017 along with being named to the AP All-SEC First Team.
If this game was on the road I might have reason to worry but it’s not. I think it’s close for a while, but Tennessee knows not to lose to Kentucky in back-to-back years (hasn’t happened since 1976-77) and I think they take it in the second half.
Tennessee 35, Kentucky 20
Week Twelve (Nov. 17) Tennessee vs. Missouri
Missouri was 1-5 at the halfway mark last year and second year head coach Barry Odom knew another losing season was not what his program needed. They caught a lot of breaks playing in a way-down division and sprinted through the finish-line with a 7-5 record and a berth in the Texas Bowl vs Texas.
The Tigers hired someone Tennessee fans are all too familiar with in Derek Dooley.
He will run the Missouri offense at a slower pace compared to their go, go, go style they’ve had in the past.
Drew Lock returns for his senior year and if he can keep up the work he’s put in the past year or two, he will be a first round pick. His entire offensive line returns and the talent at the skill positions is rated high.
On the defensive side of the ball, Missouri is respectable. They posted 33 sacks last season which led the league (watch out Alabama) and while they graduated guys along the defensive front, they return guys with valuable experience. The corners and safeties are still suspect however. They can hold their own on the outside, but gave up way too many big plays last season and it cost them.
Both teams will potentially be fighting for post-season play and with this game being the last at Neyland till 2019, you know this team will be aiming to send the fans home happy by giving them their sixth win.
Tennessee 28, Missouri 21
Week Thirteen (Nov. 24) Tennessee @ Vanderbilt
If you think Tennessee fans still have a sour taste in their mouth after losing to in state rival Vanderbilt in back-to-back seasons and for the fourth time in six seasons, you’d be right.
Vanderbilt would have to win every matchup with Tennessee for the next 43 years just to tie the series.
After a bowl trip in 2016, Vanderbilt experienced another down year finishing 5-7 in 2017 with a lone SEC win over a dead Tennessee team on Thanksgiving weekend.
If the Commodores have any experience coming back it’s on offense. Kyle Shurmur had 26 touchdowns and ended a streak of four years where the quarterback finished with more interceptions than touchdowns for Vandy. Ralph Webb was a force to be reckoned with in the backfield once again in his finally year in Nashville.
Head coach Derek Mason now has to rely on Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn to get the bulk of the carries. Along with that, the team has to replace three of Shurmur’s best guys to throw to at wide receiver.
Defensively, they need help, fast.
Vanderbilt was terrible against the run in 2017 and forced only nine takeaways. Derek Mason brought in Jason Tarver, a former defensive assistant at Stanford who is welcomed by the challenge of coaching a unit with only four starters returning. It could be a rough start for the Commodores with their four non-conference games in the first five weeks.
Plus after Sept. 29th, their next seven games are SEC games and only two are at home. It could be another rough year for Vanderbilt and they could be black and blue coming into Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee 41, Vanderbilt 20
2018 Tennessee Vols Final Record: 7-5.
This is about where I’ve said Tennessee will finish going back to the spring.
A seven win season at a school like Tennessee is by no means something to be over the moon about, but in the first year of a new head coach and this being his first big gig, it would have fans satisfied.
I think this Tennessee team has much more experience across the board this year. From quarterback to wide receiver to defensive line to the secondary, this team will not mirror the 2017 Volunteers. Seven wins might not be much, but with the work that’s being put in now, hopefully it’s not long before Tennessee is back on top where it belongs.