We’re nearing the 100-day mark on the countdown to college football season — when the number of days remaining until the first college teams take the field goes from triple digits to double digits and a ray of light appears at the end of the tunnel — and that’s never been more evident than on Monday, when a Vegan sports book released its odds for the 2017 season.
CG Technology placed the over/under on Tennessee’s win total this season at 7.5 games. That’s third-best in the SEC East, behind Florida (8) and Georgia (8). Other SEC teams ahead of the Vols included Auburn (8), LSU (9) and Alabama (10.5).
As we approach the 20-year mark since Tennessee last won an SEC championship — it’s the longest such drought in the program’s storied history, in case you’re wondering — and as we enter Year 5 of the Butch Jones era, 7.5 wins simply aren’t enough.
The truth is, it’s hard to argue with placing the O/U at 7.5 for Tennessee. There are three guaranteed wins on the schedule in Indiana State, Southern Miss and UMass, and five other games that the Vols should win, including Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Missouri — in order of difficulty, from greatest to least.
That would give Jones and his Tennessee squad eight wins, and if you bet the over, you’d win. But any more than eight wins may be tough to come by. The Vols’ remaining games are against Georgia, Florida, Alabama and LSU — each of which will likely be favored to beat Tennessee.
It’s possible, of course, that Tennessee splits those four games and gets to 10 wins. After all, the Georgia and LSU games are in Knoxville. Not having to face the Tigers in Red Stick is a big plus, but that LSU team will be one of the most talented teams in America when new head coach Ed Orgeron brings them to town on Nov. 18. Yaw Yaw will be making his return to the city where he coached under Lane Kiffin, and he will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Les Miles may not have been the greatest gameday coach in the SEC, but he could recruit with the best of them. As for Georgia, last year’s hail mary victory in Athens may require a decade of penance for the UT program. A win in Gainesville is rare for Tennessee (which has won in The Swamp just twice since the Nixon administration), and you can bet the house on the Vols not going to Tuscaloosa and winning.
So, yes, it’s possible that Tennessee splits its games against those four marquee opponents. But there’s probably a greater likelihood that the Vols lose a game they aren’t supposed to — that season-opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta is a prime candidate — and wind up with the under, at just seven wins.
Which begs the question: will seven wins — or even eight — be enough to save Jones’ job and earn him a sixth season? Let’s not kid ourselves: Jones enters this season firmly on the hot seat. The Vols looked impressive when we last saw them in Nashville back in late December, rolling to a 38-24 win over Nebraska. But Jones’ teams also looked impressive in bowl wins over Northwestern and Iowa, and what followed were less than impressive regular seasons.
Meanwhile, late-season losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt cost UT an almost gimme SEC East title. The Vandy loss stung particularly bad, and Jones didn’t help matters by quipping that his team never had a goal of winning the SEC East. His widely criticized “champions of life” stunt also backfired in a spectacular way.
Since that time, a new sheriff has arrived in town. John Currie has already axed baseball coach Dave Serrano and tennis coach Sam Winterbotham. And that was before they had engraved the nameplate for his office door. Currie appears to be taking no prisoners, which should not make Jones — or women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick, for that matter — feel too warm and fuzzy about the new athletics director.
So that’s where we are. When you look at UT’s roster, and at its schedule, 7.5 wins seems like a fair O/U. But for a fanbase that is eager to erase two decades of misfortune, will it be enough? Prior to 2016, Jones’ best card was his team’s steady improvement — from five wins in 2013 to seven in 2014 to nine in 2015. But that improvement hit a wall in 2016, a year which saw no improvement. And unless the Vols exceed expectations, 2017 may actually see the program take a step back.
Will it be enough? Probably not.
ν Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.