BEWARE THE SUMMER LOVE AFFAIR WITH TENNESSEE
The Tennessee Volunteers are all the rage in the betting markets this offseason, at least compared to where they've been in recent years. The Vols have a win total of 9.5 on the Over/Under board. Now they went 9-4 last season, so it's tempting to see that as a logical case of growth. But a look at where the program has been tells us this is a risk. Consider that...
- Tennessee has not had a 10-win season since 2007
- Their last national Top 10 finish was 2001
- Last year broke a spell of seven straight years of ending the season unranked. And what was the ranking that the 2015 Vols scaled the heights with? Does being #22 dazzle you? It apparently does seem people.
- Head coach Butch Jones has been a head man for nine years and won ten games precisely twice. This includes tenures at Central Michigan and Cincinnati where he wasn't exactly playing SEC competition.
Now of course none of this means Tennessee can't win 10 games this season. Jones has put together two big recruiting classes that he's hoping bear fruit in the W-L record this year. His tenure in Knoxville has gone from 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. But given the track record of both his own career and the recent history of this program isn't making ten wins a minimum prerequisite just overreaching a bit?
One of the reasons Tennessee is an attractive team is they have dynamic talent at the skill positions. Joshua Dobbs is a dual-threat quarterback. The 1-2 punch in the backfield with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara is potent. But this also reveals some problems.
Dobbs' numbers were good - he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 6.7 yards-per-pass and had a 15/5 TD-INT ratio. He also ran for 671 yards. But is this so exceptional, so off the charts fantastic, that it's enough to carry a team that has issues on the offensive line.
Tennessee is a rare team where the backs were able to cover up the weaknesses up front. Hurd is a legitimately outstanding college running back, rolling up 1,285 yards last year. Kamara is a perfect change-of-pace. His 698 yards made him a good threat on the ground and he can also catch the ball out of the backfield.
But if you can't block, eventually good defenses are going to catch up with you. How well is Tennessee going to run the ball against Alabama if the offensive front doesn't drastically improve? If you're wondering, find the Alabama-LSU game last year where the Tide's defensive front overwhelmed Leonard Fournette.
You might be saying that's unfair to use Alabama as a template. But this gets to the heart of the matter. We're not attempting to imply that Tennessee doesn't have real promise or that this can't be the first Tennessee team in nearly a decade to win 10 games. We're saying that there is a significant gap between them and Alabama - whereas to look at the betting futures, you would be led to believe that the Vols are nipping at the heels of the Tide.
Tennessee is only available at (+500) to win the SEC - something they haven't done since 1998. If they were a real darkhorse all the attributes we've mentioned - the good recruiting classes, steady improvement of late, talented quarterback and great running back - would make them a value buy. But until they drop down to that level, the Vols are going to be overpriced.
To win 10 games means you only want to have to write off a couple spots on the schedule (lose more than twice and you're dependent on a bowl matchup to get to 10). So let's write off the Alabama game. Tennessee now only has one more loss to give against a schedule that includes road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M. It includes dates with Virginia Tech, Florida, Missouri and South Carolina. Every year we see talented college football teams drop a game or two that they're a narrow favorite in. Are you confident enough in Tennessee to say they'll take care of business in those games, as well avoid an upset?
The Vols have a reasonable chance to get to 10 victories. They have a good chance to win the SEC East and who knows, maybe they can spring an upset on the champ of the superior SEC West and win the conference title. But the numbers on the board don't correspond to the kind of leap Tennessee is going to have to make. The best thing that could happen for college football bettors is for an early loss - say to Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 10 - to deflate the market a bit and give a chance for a buy-in at a better price.