Tennessee Football: Early Game-by-Game Prediction for the 2014 Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2014

Tennessee Football: Early Game-by-Game Prediction for the 2014 Season

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    The Tennessee Volunteers face nine teams on their 2014 football schedule that played in the postseason a year ago, making head coach Butch Jones' team's slate arguably the toughest in the nation.

    The goal is a bowl.

    With the Vols expected to play freshmen all over the field, the upcoming season could be exciting but will test the Big Orange Nation's patience.

    Brighter days are coming, as indicated by a top-10 recruiting class on 247Sports and youthful talent all over the field. But it's incredibly difficult to win the rugged SEC with as many newcomers as Jones will be forced to play.

    Throw in a nonconference schedule that includes national championship contender Oklahoma and dangerous Utah State with its talented signal-caller, Chuckie Keeton, and UT's slate of games is unenviable for anybody in Year 2 of a rebuild.

    UT will find out just how talented Jones' first full recruiting class is right away and throughout the year.

    Let's take a look at some early game-by-game predictions and see how it looks like the Vols may stack up to that daunting schedule.

Aug. 31: vs. Utah State

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    Tennessee opens the season on a Sunday night, and it will certainly have its hands full against a Utah State team expected to be a legitimate contender in the Mountain West Conference.

    Dynamic quarterback Chuckie Keeton is expected to return from a knee injury suffered last Oct. 4, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Matt Murschel and Brant Parsons. If he is 100 percent, Keeton has the arm and mobility to put up huge numbers and give even the best defenses fits.

    This is a program that won nine games last year without its star, too, and Utah State is a popular upset pick on ESPN.com.

    Couple Keeton's return with the probability that the Aggies are expected to start four senior offensive linemen against UT's rebuilding, rookie-laden defense, and it is going to be a tough start for the Vols.

    All that being said, Utah State did lose seven starters from the Mountain West Conference's top defense from a season ago that led the league in turnover margin.

    If UT takes care of the football, it'll be difficult for USU to match the speed and size at the skill positions, therefore they'll have to settle for a moral victory and a scare in Neyland Stadium.


    Prediction: Tennessee 38, Utah State 28 (Record: 1-0)

Sept. 6: vs. Arkansas State

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    For the fourth consecutive season, Arkansas State will be breaking in a new head football coach.

    Bryan Harsin left the Red Wolves to return to his hometown and replace Chris Petersen as coach of Boise State, following in the footsteps of Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn).

    The latest offensive guru to take over for ASU is former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who inherits an 8-5 team that shared the Sun Belt title and beat Ball State in the GoDaddy Bowl.

    The Wolves return a couple of potentially nice weapons in running back Michael Gordon and receiver J.D. McKissic, but there are far too many concerns on the offensive and defensive fronts to compete with a SEC team.

    The Vols will win this one easily.


    Prediction: Tennessee 37, Arkansas State 13 (Record: 2-0)

Sept. 13: at Oklahoma

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    Oklahoma's (and quarterback Trevor Knight's) breakout performance in a blowout of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl masked the inconsistency that accompanied an impressive 11-2 record.

    Make no mistake: Bob Stoops and the Sooners had a very good season, but OU didn't cruise through its schedule, getting blown away by Texas and Baylor and struggling against also-rans like West Virginia and TCU.

    When UT travels to Norman for an early-season showdown, it will have to hope for the same sort of mental hiccup from the Sooners.

    Stoops' group returns its entire front seven on defense, and though OU lost a lot of offensive weapons, freshman running back Joe Mixon has all the talent to make an immediate impact.

    Couple him with promising underclassman Keith Ford, and the Sooners will give a young Tennessee defense fits.

    This one won't be pretty for Vols fans, as a promising young team gets a reality check on the road.


    Prediction: Oklahoma 41, Tennessee 17 (Record: 2-1)


Sept. 27: at Georgia

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    Last year, the Vols were mere inches away from what would have been Butch Jones' signature win in Knoxville against Georgia.

    Though that came a couple of weeks later against South Carolina, Pig Howard's fumble will be one of the plays remembered as being synonymous with this recent rough patch.

    A year later, the Vols will attempt to complete the upset, but it won't be easy. A Bulldogs team ravaged by injuries is expected to be healthy and much improved in 2014.

    Led by Heisman Trophy hopeful running back Todd Gurley, UGA is going to be a tough task for any team, much less one that will be playing so many true freshmen in the defensive front seven.

    With all the defensive question marks, this one is tough to put in UT's win column, especially in Athens. Thankfully for the Vols, Aaron Murray has gone on to the NFL, but if Hutson Mason can just take care of the ball, he has weapons around him.

    Most of the Dawgs defense returns with new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, too, so they expect to improve. This game is normally extremely close, but all the variables equal UT starting the conference schedule with an "L."


    Prediction: Georgia 35, Tennessee 29 (Record: 2-2)

Oct. 4: vs. Florida

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    Last season was an absolute nightmare for Florida and head coach Will Muschamp's suddenly scorching seat.

    With quarterback Jeff Driskel returning from an injury suffered against the Vols and Kurt Roper now calling the offensive shots, it's unlikely the Gators are going to be 4-8 again in 2014.

    Talent still abounds in Gainesville, and though there are remaining issues that will keep UF from competing for the SEC East, it's just difficult following through and picking Tennessee to beat the Gators.

    It has been nine years, after all.

    This is a major swing game for Butch Jones' young team. If they beat the Gators, a breakthrough season that boosts the rebuilding efforts is attainable. Lose it, and UT will be scraping to get to a bowl game once again.

    This is a difficult pick, but it's just hard to take the Vols until they prove there isn't something psychological with seeing those orange and blue jerseys. The Gators are the pick here, and it'll put the Vols in a precarious position.


    Prediction: Florida 23, Tennessee 21 (Record: 2-3)

Oct. 11: vs. Chattanooga

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    This game against the Football Championship Subdivision in-state Chattanooga Mocs comes at the perfect time.

    It will provide a nice reprieve after a three-game gauntlet of Oklahoma/Georgia/Florida and before another one that includes Ole Miss/Alabama/South Carolina.

    Coach Russ Huesman's team is primed to have a very good season in the Southern Conference, but it won't have the athletes to compete with the Vols.

    Games like this are where UT's young players will get necessary reps that will benefit them in the season's stretch run. The Mocs may keep it close for a half, but UT will pull away after halftime.


    Prediction: Tennessee 48, Chattanooga 13 (Record: 3-3)

Oct. 18: at Ole Miss

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    Tennessee hopes to take a similar arc as Ole Miss when it comes to rebuilding its football program. Entering year three of coach Hugh Freeze's regime, 2014 is shaping up to be a very intriguing year for the Rebels.

    Not only do they return senior starting quarterback Bo Wallace, elite receiver Laquon Treadwell and a stable of speedy running backs, Ole Miss could have one of the best defenses in the nation.

    Robert Nkemdiche, Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner anchor a unit that is young but extremely talented.

    This is another winnable game for UT that will probably wind up just out of reach for a young team. The Rebels are a year further along in their program, and Freeze has the cupboard a little more stocked than Butch Jones.

    Ole Miss gets the nod, especially in Oxford.


    Prediction: Ole Miss 27, Tennessee 20 (Record: 3-4)

Oct. 25: vs. Alabama

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    The hype surrounding this game will be fun, as Alabama offensive coordinator (and former Tennessee head coach) Lane Kiffin returns to Knoxville.

    Unfortunately for Vols fans wanting blood, the game won't be.

    Kiffin will be muzzled by Nick Saban, so he won't be able to say any of his normal, incendiary things.

    More unfortunate for UT, he has the running back triumvirate of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake to toss in waves at a young defense.

    The Vols will close the gap a little from the past several years of bloodletting against the Crimson Tide, but even though Bama doesn't have a proven quarterback and is replacing lots of talent on the offensive line and throughout its defense, it is still Bama.

    The Tide is still rife with 5-star players and deep with the most elite prospects in the country.

    Tennessee's receivers may give that young secondary some trouble, but ultimately, the Vols just can't compete on Alabama's level yet.


    Prediction: Alabama 42, Tennessee 20 (Record: 3-5)

Nov. 1: at South Carolina

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    Even in yet another disappointing season for Tennessee in 2013, two of the most lasting images were Marquez North's leaping, one-handed grab and Michael Palardy's celebration as his ensuing kick was good, upsetting South Carolina.

    For Butch Jones, it was a signature win. For the Vols, it was a glimpse of better days. Though it didn't translate into a bowl appearance, it was still a big step.

    Now, UT must travel to Columbia to take on a Gamecocks team hungry to avenge the upset.

    Gone are Connor Shaw—the heart and soul of the team—and Jadeveon Clowney, so Carolina may be a bit overrated heading into the season. It's still going to be a very difficult matchup for the Vols.

    This is always a close game, and it will be again. But with Mike Davis running the football and the quality players the 'Cocks return in the front seven, the Vols will fall frustratingly short again.


    Prediction: South Carolina 28, Tennessee 24 (Record: 3-6)

Nov. 15: vs. Kentucky

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    Entering the final stretch of the season, UT will find itself in a familiar position as it has in recent seasons—needing to win out to make a bowl game.

    Unlike the past couple of seasons, the Vols will do it.

    The run begins with a Kentucky team that is going to be more talented than it has been in recent years thanks to an impressive recruiting class 247Sports ranked 23rd nationally. But UT has won 28 of the past 29 meetings in the series, and it should be even more talented than the 'Cats again this year.

    Tennessee will not lose this game.

    By this time, the Vols' young defense should be coming together, and they'll have settled into their offense with seasoned senior Justin Worley at the helm. They'll be coming off a rigorous stretch, and they'll still have something for which to play.

    The Vols will respond and complete a resounding win that will set the stage for the remainder of the season.


    Prediction: Tennessee 37, Kentucky 21 (Record: 4-6)

Nov. 22: vs. Missouri

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    The stars simply aligned for Mizzou in the 2013 season. But that football program is much closer to the one that trotted on the field in '12 than last year.

    With Dorial Green-Beckham getting dismissed, defensive stars like Michael Sam and Kony Ealy going pro and a handful of their offensive players graduated, the Tigers are going to have a difficult time replicating last season's success.

    Maty Mauk is still a matchup nightmare for the Vols, but UT is going to be much faster defensively than it was a season ago, so containing him will be easier.

    By this time of the year, the group will have found some leaders and should be playing as well as they have all season. That's going to propel UT to a big program win in Neyland Stadium that will set up a showdown with Vanderbilt for a bowl berth.


    Prediction: Tennessee 24, Missouri 20 (Record: 5-6)

Nov. 29: at Vanderbilt

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    A proud football program like Tennessee shouldn't be going into its final game of the season only hoping for a bowl bid. But after four consecutive losing seasons and three bowl-less ones, that's where the Vols are.

    They're also in a spot where they owe Vanderbilt some serious payback.

    Two years ago in Nashville, VU dominated Tennessee and Derek Dooley. Last season, the Vols played arguably their worst game of the season in a loss, thanks to several squandered opportunities and an overturned ball spot.

    The Commodores don't have star receiver Jordan Matthews anymore, and they also don't have the defensive horses to keep up with Tennessee's stable of talent.

    Derek Mason will end the first season of his head coaching career at VU with a loss to the Vols.

    Tennessee will finish 6-6 and get a bid to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. It won't be what Tennessee fans want, but it's a start. And with such a young team, it will be a successful season.


    Prediction: Tennessee 31, Vanderbilt 13 (Record: 6-6)

    Brad Shepard is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: