The Tennessee Volunteers faced some serious growing pains in year one of the Jeremy Pruitt era. The result was a 5-7 record, six losses by 25 points or more, and a squandered opportunity to secure a bowl game as the Vols ran out of gas down the stretch.
The silver lining is that the 2018 season wasn't a complete disaster. There was evidence of progress. The Vols pulled off a pair of significant upsets against ranked SEC opponents. And despite the lackluster results overall, efforts on the recruiting trail paid off in the form of a top-15 signing class.
The question is — Can the Vols take a step forward in year two of the Pruitt era? Evidence suggests that most head coaches see marked improvement from year one to year two. There are certainly more tangible reasons for optimism as well. However, the Volunteers are not without question marks that cast some doubt on the upcoming campaign.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Tennessee is yet another difficult slate of games. While the 2019 schedule is not quite as grueling as last season, it does provide plenty of potential stumbling blocks for a team that still has plenty of ground to make up in the highly competitive SEC.
The non-conference slate is fairly forgiving and does not feature a single Power 5 opponent. That said, a Power 5-caliber BYU team could prove to be a real handful in Knoxville. UAB is another non-conference opponent that Tennessee shouldn't take lightly.
The SEC schedule is far less forgiving, starting with the rival Gators in Gainesville, where the Vols have not won since 2003. The other major obstacles on the slate include a meeting with SEC East favorite Georgia in Knoxville, as well as a road trip to face Alabama on the third Saturday in October. A late-season trip to Missouri could prove problematic as well.
Games against Mississippi State and South Carolina at home appear to be toss-ups heading into the season, while matchups against Kentucky (away) and in-state foe Vanderbilt (home) hold promise, although neither of those games can be chalked up as guaranteed wins at this point.
So, what exactly are the expectations for the Volunteers in the upcoming season? Athlon Sports asked a few editors and one of its college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Tennessee in 2019.
Tennessee Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2019
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Jeremy Pruitt has Tennessee trending in the right direction, and a bowl game should be a reasonable goal for this program in 2019. The Volunteers should be able to go 4-0 in non-conference play and have swing games at home against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina. While Pruitt should be able to guide this team to a bowl game, this roster still has big question marks along the offensive and defensive lines. However, an improved staff featuring two standout coordinator hires – Jim Chaney (offense) and Derrick Ansley (defense) – and the continued development of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano should help Tennessee return to the postseason.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
The goal in Year 2 of the Jeremy Pruitt era should be reaching bowl eligibility, and it appears there are six or seven wins on the schedule this fall. The Vols should have little trouble racing out to a 3-0 start — but then things get tricky, with dates against Florida, Georgia and Alabama in a four-game stretch. A huge swing game is the Oct. 26 home date against South Carolina; win that, and the Vols could be looking at eight wins. I'm giving Tennessee a win in the finale against Vanderbilt, but the Vols' recent struggles in the series — losses in three straight and in five of the last seven — are well-documented.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
Jeremy Pruitt seems to have the Vols trending in a positive direction. Tennessee returns most of its top playmakers from last season, along with a wealth of experience among most of its position groups. An upgraded coaching staff that now includes offensive coordinator Jim Chaney should pay dividends, particularly in the development of Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback. But will that translate into more wins in 2019?
That really hinges on the Vols' ability to find some answers along the line of scrimmage. A lack of experience and depth on the defensive line is cause for concern. Meanwhile, Tennessee's offensive line has long been an area of concern and vast improvement is a must for this team to truly maximize its potential.
If those areas can be addressed accordingly, it wouldn't come as a total shock to see Tennessee win as many as nine games this season. If those issues have not been properly addressed, another five-win season seems more plausible. Given the schedule, I think a more reasonable expectation lies somewhere in the middle with seven wins and a bowl berth.