With just one more weekend to go before the start of the 2013 college football season, it's officially acceptable to make predictions for the upcoming season. The Tennessee Volunteers have had fans wondering and debating what kind of season they'll have all offseason because of the renewed energy in Knoxville.
All credit goes to Butch Jones and his relentless staff for embracing the Volunteer tradition, adding their own flair and pressing forward with their "brick by brick" strategy to get Tennessee back. Until now, Jones has done everything right.
But the one and only way he'll be graded in the long term is his on-field success. Recruiting is great. Developing is even better. But winning is king of kings, lord of lords. It's the be-all end-all to the future of a coach.
So how does the 2013 season look? I believe there are too many people on the poles on this subject—some thinking nine-plus wins, while others think an unprecedented fourth consecutive losing season is imminent.
As usual, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
The Governors of Austin Peay went 2-9 last year with losses of 65-15 to Eastern Illinois and 52-14 to Murray State.
This in-state rivalry isn't likely to heat up anytime soon even with a brand-new coaching staff, quarterback and wide receiver corps for Tennessee.
Prediction: Win, 41-10
Just four years ago, Western Kentucky was beginning its transition from the FCS to the FBS. In its first game as a bona fide FBS school within the Sun Belt Conference, new Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin walloped the Hilltoppers 63-7.
Since that fateful 0-12 start in 2009, Western Kentucky has improved each season, winning a berth to a bowl game last year in a 7-6 campaign. Its record since 2010 is 16-21. Tennessee's record since 2010 is also 16-21.
While the Toppers are undoubtedly trending up and the Volunteers are (hopefully) about to bounce off the bottom, there is little question as to which one has more talent and momentum right now.
Bobby Petrino is an offensive genius, but Butch Jones is a master of motivation.
Prediction: Win, 31-20
In recent years, the Volunteers haven't performed well against teams from the West Coast. Tennessee is just 1-4 in its past four Pac-12 Conference games, including the stormy loss to Oregon in 2010.
The Ducks are coming off a 2012 season that nearly led them to their second BCS title game in three years. An overtime loss to Stanford in November cost them that opportunity.
Oregon returns starting quarterback Marcus Mariota, who threw 32 touchdowns to just six interceptions last season. He also was second on the team in rushing behind the departed Kenjon Barner.
Keeping up with the notoriously fast-paced Oregon offense is going to be a mammoth challenge for the Tennessee defense. Preseason All-American Daniel McCullers has to limit Mariota's time in the backfield, while Brian Randolph and Byron Moore need to limit the big runs of the Ducks.
Even if the Vols play a perfect game, this trip to Eugene is going to be an uphill fight.
Prediction: Loss, 42-21
One year removed from the most electric crowd Neyland Stadium has seen in several years, it's Tennessee's turn to travel to Florida 2013.
The Gators lost starting running back Mike Gillislee and three of their top four receivers from last season. After facing Oregon, Florida might look like a very familiar team that uses nifty blocking, misdirection and pure athleticism to move the ball downfield via the run.
Florida had the fifth-ranked total defense in 2012 but lost many of its star players to the NFL. The Gators still have loads of talent, but this game has sleeper win potential for the Vols.
Prediction: Loss, 24-17
South Alabama will serve as the proverbial "eye of the hurricane" for the Volunteers' season. Before the Jaguars, Tennessee plays two top-10 opponents on the road. After the Jaguars, Tennessee takes on three top-six opponents in a row.
South Alabama went 2-11 last year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The goals for the Vols will be to right the wrongs of the first four weeks and escape the game healthy.
Prediction: Win, 35-14
The Georgia Bulldogs are an interesting case. The last time they were ranked in the preseason top five, they turned in a relatively unimpressive 10-3 record.
There are plenty of reasons to think that won't happen this fall. They return quarterback Aaron Murray, who needs less than 1,500 passing yards to break the all-time SEC career record. They return running back Todd Gurley, who ran for 1,385 yards as a freshman last season.
Like Florida, however, they lost a ton of defensive talent. The Bulldogs had seven starters drafted into the NFL in April, including two first-rounders.
As if the polarizing statuses of the offense and defense weren't enough, when you look at the recent history of the Tennessee-Georgia series, you'll see virtually no trend and no pattern to who wins and why.
Since 2004, Georgia leads the series 5-4. There have been four games that have been won by more than 17 points and three that have been won by less than nine.
The preseason rankings say one thing, but with the unpredictable nature of this rivalry and home-field advantage for the Volunteers, who's to know?
Prediction: Loss, 27-20
The Volunteers very nearly upset the Gamecocks in last year's game in South Carolina. Future first-rounders Jadeveon Clowney and Antonio Richardson battled against one another in the trenches all day with Richardson successfully keeping the fierce defensive end at bay.
But one play was all it took.
The 2013 South Carolina team could be as good as any fielded under Steve Spurrier. The aforementioned Clowney will be back. Spurrier will continue to play a two-quarterback system that he loves so much with Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. Mike Davis will get his turn at running back with Marcus Lattimore gone.
But it's the Gamecock defense that will be the highlight of the team. Only two of the 11 starters are sophomores, and no freshmen will start. There is a ton of experience and talent on that side of the ball.
Youth at the offensive skill positions could allow Tennessee to force a late turnover, similar to the one South Carolina forced last year, but it's going to be a tall order.
Prediction: Loss, 27-14
A trip to Alabama will mark the last opponent currently ranked in the preseason polls for Tennessee. That may be the best news of the October weekend.
The two-time defending BCS national champions are the odds-on favorite to three-peat, according to Bovada, and a loss at the hands of Tennessee would throw that off track.
Prediction: Loss, 34-14
The Missouri game last year was epic, to say the least. After Tennessee jumped out to a 21-7 halftime lead, the Volunteers lost steam down the stretch and allowed the Tigers to force overtime.
(Of course, "allowed" is a term used gently. Remember the crowd reaction when it saw the clock was going to run down at the end of regulation?)
After four overtimes, the Tigers prevailed in their first trip to Knoxville.
The fact of the matter is that neither Tennessee nor Missouri was a very good team last year. The Tigers ended the year one spot ahead of the Volunteers in the SEC East with a 2-6 conference record and a 5-7 overall record.
The energy lies completely on the side of the Vols, who are looking to return the favor to the Tigers with their first trip to Columbia.
Prediction: Win, 24-20
Auburn is a very similar team to Tennessee in 2013. Both are coming off of terrible 2012 campaigns where their head coaches were fired.
Both brought in offensive-minded coaches who have proved to be excellent recruiters. Both coaches had success in their previous jobs.
Both schools have strong traditions and fans to appease with a quick turnaround. Both programs finished at the bottom of their respective divisions last year.
Auburn has an unsettled quarterback situation, as does Tennessee (though Tennessee's isn't as open). Both return running backs and receivers who haven't made major contributions to their teams yet.
The list of similarities goes on, but the main advantage the Vols have is that the game is at home in Neyland. That's enough.
Prediction: Win, 28-24
A lot of people are high on Vanderbilt, a team coming off of its best season in two decades. They neglect a few facts:
- The Commodores lost half of their starters on offense and defense, including their starting quarterback, running back and three offensive linemen.
- Vandy's 2012 schedule wasn't loaded with tough opponents. Presbyterian, Auburn, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Wake Forest had a combined record of 13-46 but made up more than half of Vandy's wins.
- The terrible crime allegedly committed by several Vanderbilt players over the summer has led to five indictments, including one starter. No program is perfect, but dealing with this level of treachery is new for the Commodores and is a major distraction.
Knowing these facts and considering that the Volunteers will be in their 11th game as a new team, it's tough to not take Tennessee at home.
Prediction: Win, 24-17
Mike Stoops has brought a similar kind of excitement to a dormant Kentucky program that Butch Jones has brought to Tennessee. As of August 19, the Wildcats are ranked No. 5 in the country for 2014 recruiting by Rivals.com.
After the Vols suffered heart-wrenching losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt last year, they were still able to overcome a weak Kentucky team in the final week of the season. In fact, Tennessee has only lost to the Wildcats once in the past 28 years.
This could become an interesting matchup as Stoops and Jones grow together in their respective jobs.
Prediction: Win, 30-14