The Vol Nation is ecstatic about this season.
Weeks ago, Tennessee sold out its season-ticket allotment of over 70,000 – this coming just three years removed from a 3-7 record. Students applied for a record 18,000 tickets to see the home opener against Austin Peay – that’s Austin Peay! The student section only seats about 11,700 when you subtract those allocated for the band.
Why the euphoria?
Answer: Josh Heupel.
Heupel guided the Vols to their first 11-win season since 2001. UT beat Florida for the second time in 18 years, stormed the field after a victory over Alabama, tamed the Tigers at LSU and clobbered Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
The four-game improvement from one season to the next was the most since the 1988-89 seasons and tied for the second most since 1964-65.
Here are several predictions for this season:
Will the Vols lead the nation again with a 46.1 point scoring average?
No. Tennessee won’t score 52 points against Alabama, 66 against Missouri or 56 against Vanderbilt. UT had six games with at least 50 points last year, with three games in the 60s. UT will score in the 50s only three times this season, thus the team scoring average will be closer to 40 points per game, which will rank among the top 10 in the nation.
Will Joe Milton match Hendon Hooker’s stats from a year ago?
No. Hooker completed 69.6% of his passes for 3,135 yards with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 27-2 – the best mark in UT history. Milton could get to 3,500 passing yards (remember, Hooker missed two games due to injury) but his completion percentage will be closer to 65%. I’ve got his TD-interception ratio at 30-10.
It’s worth noting that Milton has 12 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions in two years as a Vol. I asked him if that was a credit to his decision making. “No,’’ he said. “It’s a credit to my coaches.’’
Will the run game average 200 yards per game?
No. But it will come close. Hooker averaged almost 40 yards per game rushing. Milton averaged 8.6 yards per game last season. The Vols also lost arguably their two best offensive linemen from last year’s team: Darnell Wright (No. 10 pick in the NFL draft) and road-grader Jerome Carvin. Plus, center Cooper Mays will likely miss the first 2-3 games of the season after having surgery.
Who will lead the team in rushing?
Jaylen Wright – again. Wright had 875 yards last season. He’s a speedster who runs with vision and toughness. Plus, he’s not as injury prone as Jabari Small. Wright will surpass 1,000 yards. Small and Dylan Sampson will combine for over 1,200 yards.
Who will lead the team in receiving?
Bru McCoy. He was second on the team with 52 receptions last year. He should up that total to about 70. Ramel Keyton was second on the team with 18.1 yards per catch last season, but this season, Squirrel White will lead the team in yards per catch followed closely by Dont’e Thornton. UT will have four wideouts with at least 40 catches.
Will UT match last season’s sack total of 31?
Yes. Tennessee outscored opponents 141-72 in the first quarter last year. Heupel’s offense usually starts fast as defenses try to adjust to the up-tempo. Thus, opponents often play from behind and are forced to throw. Here’s another reason the sack total will increase: defensive tackle Omari Thomas. Thomas will apply inside pressure, forcing quarterbacks out of the pocket and into the hands of edge rushers.
Who will lead the team in sacks?
Outside linebacker Aaron Beasley. He had three sacks last year, two against Clemson when he played his more natural position of weakside linebacker. Beasley will have competition in the sack department from Roman Harrison, Joshua Josephs, James Pearce and Elijah Herring.
Will UT’s defense allow fewer than 22.8 points per game?
Yes. But this is a close call. It depends on how quickly Heupel empties his bench when he has a fourth-quarter lead. But I’ll go under on this total because this is UT’s third year in Tim Banks’ system and UT has more defensive depth than it did last year.
Last year, the defense had only three bad games – and won two of them (Florida gained 594 yards and Alabama 569 yards). The other bad defensive performance was against South Carolina (63 points, 606 yards). UT allowed fewer than 400 total yards in eight games (Kentucky and Will Levis gained 205 yards). UT will have just one game where it allows over 500 yards and over 40 points.
Also, UT had six games in which opponents scored 14 or fewer points. That will be hard to duplicate.
Will the Vols win 11 this season?
No. I predicted 9-3 for 2022 and I’ll go 9-3 again for 2023. I think the Vols lose to Georgia and at Alabama and then to someone else (South Carolina was that someone else last year). This year, that “other’’ defeat could be at Florida (where UT hasn’t won since 2003), at Kentucky, or at home against South Carolina or Texas A&M.
Tennessee will get an invite to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando or the bowl in Tampa. But it’s hard to pick that outcome without knowing the opponent.
So 10 wins is on the table. Eleven wins will depend on how well Milton plays.
Prediction for opener: Tennessee 38, Virginia 13.