Tennessee Football Outlook

By Mark Nagi

Five games in… seven games to go.

College football is (in my opinion) the greatest sport in the world, partly because it also has the shortest season. We look forward to the games for nine months and are only guaranteed 12 of them.

The Tennessee Volunteers sit at 4-1, thanks to a dreadful performance at Florida, which was followed by a spectacular bounce-back performance against South Carolina two weeks later. They’ve also beaten Virginia, Austin Peay and UTSA, but those games don’t hold the same level of importance.

The schedule really kicks into high gear over the next few weeks with a home game against Texas A&M, a road game at Alabama and another road game at Kentucky.

Let’s start with the Aggies. Tennessee’s tradition of seeing backup QBs play lights out against them (2001 LSU QB Matt Mauck still haunts the dreams of Vols fans) could continue Saturday. Max Johnson was at one time the starter at LSU. Now, has been thrust onto the big stage again, and tasked with keeping Texas A&M’s season afloat.

Jimbo Fisher is so desperate to win in College Station that he brought in disgraced coach Bobby Petrino as their offensive coordinator. Tennessee will try to prove that was the wrong decision.

As for Alabama, the Crimson Tide saw their 15-year winning streak broken last October in a 52-49 loss to UT. It was one of the best games in the history of this historic rivalry and set off a celebration the likes of which hadn’t been seen at Neyland Stadium since the Florida game in 1998.

The Crimson Tide are not as dominant as they have been for more of Nick Saban’s 16-season reign of terror, but the Vols will be the underdogs at Bryant-Denny Stadium, a place they haven’t won at since 2003.

That leaves us with Kentucky. Much like Tennessee can’t find a way to win in Gainesville, the Wildcats almost always come up short when facing its I-75 rivals. During the dark times of the Dooley, Jones and Pruitt eras, the Cats often had more talent on their rosters, but the Vols found ways to win.

Mark Stoops once again has a very good team. They will also get two weeks to prepare for the Vols as they have a bye before the UT game. This contest will also be at Kroger Field in Lexington.

If you are a Tennessee fan, would you take two wins out of those three games?  That would put you at 6-2, with top-ranked Georgia the toughest remaining game on your schedule (but don’t discount Mizzou, which feels like a trap game before UGA).

The Vols resurgence under Josh Heupel might not be completely unexpected. Heupel has had success with his system at every stop. But the speed of the rebuild has been a massive surprise.  This is year 3, and the Vols are 22-9 since Heupel began manning the Shields-Watkins Field sidelines.

Compare that to a 16-19 mark under Jeremy Pruitt. The program is in considerably better shape today than it was in early 2021.

As Tennessee fans know full well, all dynasties eventually crumble and the good times never last forever. Alabama was in the wilderness for most of a decade before they got lucky and hired Saban. Nebraska is still trying to find a way to return to the glory days of the 1990s.

No matter what happens the rest of the season for the Vols, it is always good to see them back in the national conversation. They are no longer an afterthought.