It is (almost) football time in Tennessee, which means the annual, bold predictions ahead of the season. This piece is always one of my favorites to write, but it has a different feeling this year, and I cannot place my finger on why. I am not sure if it is the number of unknowns about Josh Heupel's team, the fact that full-capacity football is back (knocks on wood), or just the fact that I like explaining these bold predictions. Either way here goes nothing.
Two Receivers Eclipse 1,000 Yards
This one is probably the boldest prediction out of the lot, considering that I could not find a season in the history books where the Vols had two receivers hit the 1,000-yard mark. It is even bolder considering the fact that the last receiver to go over 1,000 yards was Justin Hunter (1,083) in 2012. Add to that the fact that the last time Tennessee came close was to having two receivers go for 1,000 was in 2001 with Kelly Washington (1,010) and Donte Stallworth (821). It is an elusive number for receivers; in fact, Georgia has only ever had one receiver, Terrence Edwards, record a 1,000-yard season, but it is doable for Josh Heupel and this Tennessee team.
Heupel is going to air the ball out. There is no doubt about this, and he has one of the fastest receiving corps in the country. While the group is young, there is still plenty of talent and players looking to create explosives. In his last two seasons at UCF, Heupel had a 1,000-yard receiver, and he had another guy knocking on the door. During the ten-game season last fall, Heupel had Marlon Williams go for 1,039 yards in just eight games, while Jaylon Robinson was right on his heels with 979 yards. That was in just ten games, so while it sounds crazy, it is possible that Heupel brings Tennessee not only its first 1,000-yard receiver in nine seasons, but he very well could bring them two.
Tennessee Does Not Play Quarterback Roulette
This would be a welcomed change for Vols fans. Since 2010, Tennessee has gone through seven seasons with multiple quarterbacks starting more than one game at the position. Josh Dobbs, Jarrett Guarantano, and Tyler Bray were the only three quarterbacks to start each game during a full season. Dobbs did it twice, Bray did it in 2012, and Guarantano did it during Jeremy Pruitt's first season, but had Keller Chryst been healthier, we would have likely seen multiple starters during that season.
Joe Milton has all of the physical tools to succeed, and he will likely look the part for the first three games of the season, but he has to show some durability, improve his overall accuracy, and make the right decisions when SEC play rolls around. Milton gets the nod based on his physical tools and upside, but the two guys behind him want the job, and both bring something different to the table.
Someone Not Named Juwan Mitchell Leads the Team in Overall Tackles
The last time a linebacker didn't lead the team in tackles at Tennessee was in 2016 when Todd Kelly Jr. did. Juwan Mitchell looks poised to fill Henry To'o To'o's void, and he was the team leader in tackles at Texas last fall. It would be pretty surprising if he doesn't lead the Vols in tackles, but I think it is possible.
This Tennessee staff is going to get creative with their looks defensively, and I expect Jaylen McCollough and Trevon Flowers to be heavily involved in run support. Jeremy Banks is a thumper, and he will look to bounce back this fall. These are the three guys I could see keeping Mitchell from the top of the leaderboard.
Tennessee Gets to Eight Wins
Remember, these are bold, and given the fact that Tennessee has only seen three seasons since 2010 get to the eight-win mark, this one remains a bold prediction, but I am not on the boat that Tennessee is just going to go out there and be competitive and have a new look and win the games they are supposed to and drop the others. I think Josh Heupel won the transfer portal coming out of the spring, and if the Vols can stay healthy, I believe they can compete in each game and may grab one they shouldn't, but I can see a path to eight or more wins.
The Vols have to handle their out-of-conference schedule first. Tennessee has to go 4-0 against Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, Tennessee Tech, and South Alabama. This is more than doable with Pitt as the toughest opponent of the group. Don't write them off, but Tennessee should be able to out-talent them down the stretch of what will be a hard-fought game from start to finish.
In conference play, Tennessee beat Missouri and South Carolina last fall with the Pruitt/Chaney offense. Both of those teams have pre-season hype around their upside, but the Vols matchup and both games are winnable contests. Tennessee fans always expect to beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt each year, and Josh Heupel will be expected to do the same in year one. The Wildcats are breaking in a new quarterback, and they are the sleeper in the East, in my opinion, but this rivalry game has delivered of late, minus last year's pitfall for Tennessee. Vanderbilt is a game that Tennessee has to win this year. If Tennessee wins those games, they are at eight wins, but the rest of the schedule is a little more formidable. Do we get an offensive fireworks show when Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss come to town? More than likely, and the Vols could find a way to get that done if the turnover-hungry secondary makes some plays down the stretch. Either way, if they win the winnable games, they are at eight wins and would need to upset one of the four teams they will be an underdog to get to nine. On top of that, there is still the possibility that Tennessee goes to a bowl as the Vols have not self-imposed any penalties, and the NCAA investigation is still ongoing. So, there is a couple of paths to more than eight wins. Will it happen? Who knows, but it is possible.