Tennessee Football: Final Game-by-Game Schedule Predictions
With only a few days left until the Tennessee Volunteers open their 118th football season in Neyland Stadium, it's time to take stock one last time of the upcoming schedule and predict the wins and losses.
First, a sobering fact: Tennessee hasn't had a winning season since 2009 when it won seven games under Lane Kiffin. In fact, the Vols have enjoyed only three winning seasons since 2005, with the other two coming in 2006 and 2007 during the twilight years of Phillip Fulmer's tenure as head coach.
Based on his stellar recruiting efforts, second-year head coach Butch Jones appears to have the Vols on the right track toward competing in the SEC, but first he needs to get Tennessee above .500 for the season and back to a bowl game—something the vast majority of players on the roster have never experienced.
Unfortunately for Jones, simply breaking even this year is a tall task, given the difficulty of the Vols' schedule in 2014. That said, there are some glimmers of hope, as the team's speed and athleticism received a massive upgrade with the arrival of the 2014 recruits.
In addition, Tennessee's opponents have many question marks as well, as several are breaking in new quarterbacks and adjusting to new coaches and coordinators.
The margin for error this season is razor-thin for Jones and his young team, but there's enough talent on the roster to make the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Here's a breakdown of how they're going to get there.
Aug. 31, Utah State Aggies
Tennessee opens its season on Sunday, Aug. 31, against the Utah State Aggies, a team that won nine games in 2013, including a victory over No. 24 Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl.
The Aggies' star quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, will take the field for the first time since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) halfway through his junior season last year. Keeton is a true dual-threat quarterback, and Tennessee has struggled in recent years against players like him who have the ability to make big plays with their feet.
However, Utah State isn't quite the same team it was in 2013, as 22 seniors graduated and left big holes in the roster, according to The Salt Lake Tribune's Lya Wodraska. In addition, Keeton may not be back to his usual self just yet, as athletes generally require a full year to recover from ACL injuries.
Despite Tennessee's youth and inexperience, the faster, more talented Vols should have no problem cruising to a victory against the Aggies with the eyes of the nation watching.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 31, Utah State 17
Sept. 6, Arkansas State Red Wolves
In most years, Tennessee's 2014 opening slate would be nothing more than a couple of warm-up games. Instead, the Vols will be tested by two solid mid-major teams.
Arkansas State won the Sun Belt Conference the past three years in a row—with 10-win seasons from coaches by the names of Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
In 2013, the Red Wolves won eight games, including a victory over Ball State in the GoDaddy Bowl.
Last season, Tennessee struggled against South Alabama, another Sun Belt team, and was a Brian Randolph end-zone interception away from a forced overtime.
While the Vols still don't have the luxury of overlooking teams like Arkansas State in 2014, the overall lack of team speed that allowed the Jaguars to gash Tennessee's defense last season shouldn't be an issue.
Look for Tennessee to pile up the points on the backs of Marlin Lane, Jalen Hurd and Marquez North before heading into its first big game of the season in Norman, Oklahoma.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 38, Arkansas State 24
Sept. 13, Oklahoma Sooners
The Oklahoma Sooners are still riding high after their Sugar Bowl victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide earlier this year.
Ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, the Sooners should be a total mismatch for the less experienced Vols, at least on paper. However, Oklahoma recently suspended star running back and 247Sports 5-star recruit Joe Mixon after an alleged assault, as reported by USA Today.
Mixon's absence, combined with the Sooners' tendency to play down to their competition—including close wins over 4-8 TCU and West Virginia in 2013—should keep Tennessee within striking distance throughout most of the game.
Altough the Vols will keep the Sooners on their toes, Oklahoma's experienced linemen and superior quarterback play will allow it to pull ahead in the fourth quarter and put the game out of reach for Tennessee.
Score Prediction: Oklahoma 35, Tennessee 24
Sept. 27, Georgia Bulldogs
Tennessee played Georgia to the wire last year in Knoxville, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion after wide receiver Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled through the end zone while diving for a touchdown in overtime.
Unfortunately for the Vols, the game won't be nearly as close in 2014.
The Bulldogs were decimated by injuries by the time they played Tennessee last season. Now, Todd Gurley, the best running back in college football, and Keith Marshall, another outstanding tailback, are both healthy and ready to punish the Vols' inexperienced defensive line.
Expect both to have huge days on the ground, as Tennessee will struggle to contain them both up the middle and on the outside.
Defensively, the Bulldogs will keep the Vols offense in check throughout the game by blitzing quarterback Justin Worley and clogging the line of scrimmage.
It will be a long day Between the Hedges for Tennessee on Sept. 27.
Score Prediction: Georgia 41, Tennessee 21
Oct. 4, Florida Gators
For the first time in ages, Tennessee's opening conference game will be against a team not named the Florida Gators.
That couldn't come at a better time for the Vols, as not only do they get Florida at home in 2014, but they also get the benefit of watching the Gators battle the Alabama Crimson Tide two weeks prior to the game on Oct. 4.
Tennessee fans are keenly aware of the fact that the Vols haven't beaten Florida since 2004, and another Gator victory this year would put the streak squarely into "annual tradition" status for the Gainesville faithful.
Although Florida will likely be much improved compared to the team's disastrous 4-8 record last season, Tennessee will finally break through and pull off a much-needed win over its SEC East rival, in large part due to breakout performances by several newcomers on the Vols roster.
Expect a close game throughout, with a late Tennessee field goal sealing the victory.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 24, Florida 21
Oct. 11, Chattanooga Mocs
Fresh off a signature win over the Florida Gators, Tennessee will enter its most lopsided matchup of the season against the Chattanooga Mocs with a newfound confidence and swagger.
Although the Mocs return the 2013 Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Jacob Huesman, the Vols will have no problem limiting Chattanooga's offense and containing Huesman on the ground and through the air.
Jones will use this game as a tuneup for the gauntlet of a schedule that awaits the Vols in the coming weeks, with several freshmen and backups getting significant playing time after the contest is put away in the first half.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 45, Chattanooga 10
Oct. 18, Ole Miss Rebels
In just three years, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze transformed the Rebels from an SEC West laughingstock to a legitimate threat to win the division.
Freeze pulled in the nation's No. 4 recruiting class in 2013, per 247Sports. The haul included five 5-star prospects, including Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's top-rated recruit, Laremy Tunsil, the top-rated offensive lineman, and Laquon Treadwell, the top-rated wide receiver.
Now that those prospects have had a year to adjust to the speed and demands of SEC football, they'll be ready to roll in 2014.
While Tennessee pulled in a monster recruiting class of its own in 2014, those players are still freshmen and a year away from truly showcasing their potential.
The Rebels will display why they're one of the fastest-rising teams in the nation when they take on the Volunteers on Oct. 18. The end result won't be pretty for Tennessee fans, but it will also give them a preview of where their own program is headed under Jones.
Score Prediction: Ole Miss 35, Tennessee 17
Oct. 25, Alabama Crimson Tide
Another year, another Tennessee loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide.
While Nick Saban's 2014 team isn't his most talented in recent years, the Tide will continue their reign of dominance over the Vols when they come to Knoxville on Oct. 25.
However, unlike recent years, Tennessee will hang around long enough to keep this one interesting until the end. The loss of star quarterback A.J. McCarron means Alabama won't be able to shred Tennessee through the air as easily as it did in years past, and Tennessee's improved speed at the linebacker and defensive back positions will prevent big plays on the ground.
Nevertheless, elite running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will be the difference-makers for the Crimson Tide, as they'll eventually wear down the Tennessee defense and stretch Alabama's lead late in the fourth quarter.
Score Prediction: Alabama 31, Tennessee 20
Nov. 1, South Carolina Gamecocks
In 2013, Jones got his first signature win as Tennessee's head coach when Michael Palardy booted a short field goal through the uprights as time expired to beat the No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks.
A big part of the reason for South Carolina's loss was Steve Spurrier's mismanagement of timeouts, but it's unlikely he will make a similar blunder when the Vols go to Columbia on Nov. 1.
Despite the loss of quarterback Connor Shaw and superstar defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina remains one of the most experienced, talented teams in the SEC.
The Gamecocks have no major weaknesses on their roster, and their head coach happens to be one of the all-time greats in college football. Expect South Carolina to jump out to an early lead on Tennessee and keep the game just out of reach for all four quarters as Spurrier evens the score with Jones.
Score Prediction: South Carolina 35, Tennessee 24
Nov. 15, Kentucky Wildcats
After three losses in a row and needing two wins to become bowl eligible, the Vols will enter the final three-game stretch of their schedule with renewed focus, starting with a matchup against the Kentucky Wildcats.
The Wildcats significantly improved their roster when second-year head coach Mark Stoops inked the program's 2014 recruiting class, but the team has a long way to go to become truly competitive with the rest of the SEC.
Kentucky's offensive and quarterback woes will continue this season, with no answers coming by the time they arrive in Knoxville on Nov. 15.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's freshman class will be hitting its stride and developing into battle-tested SEC football players.
The Vols will roll past the Wildcats and inch one step closer to their goal of making a bowl game.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 28, Kentucky 14
Nov. 22, Missouri Tigers
The Missouri Tigers were one of college football's biggest surprises last season, as they transformed overnight from a 5-7 team in 2012 to SEC East champions in 2013.
However, much of the production from the 2013 squad was lost due to graduation and the NFL draft. Even the threat of criminal charges hurt the Tigers' depth, as star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was dismissed from the team due to accusations he pushed a woman down four stairs, though he wasn't charged, according to ESPN's Mark Schlabach.
Although Missouri won't regress back to 2012 levels of mediocrity, another 2013-like season probably isn't in the cards this year.
Like the Florida game, this contest will go down to the wire, with Tennessee pulling ahead of the Tigers in the waning seconds of the game to avenge the 2012 overtime loss and secure the Vols' first bowl game since 2010.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 24, Missouri 17
Nov. 29, Vanderbilt Commodores
With James Franklin winning two out of three games against the Vols during his tenure as Vanderbilt's head coach, he reignited a rivalry that was dormant for nearly three-quarters of a century.
In 2013, the Commodores experienced the joy of not only defeating their in-state nemesis at Neyland Stadium but also denying the Vols a postseason trip.
A lot has changed since that cold November night. James Franklin is busy leading the Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley, and a new head coach named Derek Mason is in charge of football in West End.
Mason is renowned as a defensive guru from his days as a coordinator at Stanford, but his switch to a 3-4 defense, combined with a lackluster 2014 recruiting class and the losses of Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause, Austyn Carta-Samuels and Andre Hal, could make this season a challenging one for him and his staff.
Expect tempers to flare and Vanderbilt to play tough during this matchup in Nashville to end the Vols' regular season, but ultimately, Tennessee's offensive firepower should be enough to overpower the Commodores' inexperience in their new defensive scheme.
Score Prediction: Tennessee 21, Vanderbilt 17
Final Regular-Season Record: 7-5