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Ward: Can Rebuilt Roster Get Tennessee to a Bowl Game, Over its Win Total?

  • First-year coach Jeremy Pruitt has made major changes to Tennessee's roster entering 2018.
  • The Vols' schedule is difficult; they're projected as favorites in only three games.
  • Tennessee's roster has the potential to surprise people and help the Vols reach a bowl game.

Tennessee went an embarrassing 4-8 last year, the worst single-season record in school history. It now has an active losing streak against every SEC school. New coach Jeremy Pruitt needs to change all that, and he had a clear No. 1 priority this offseason.

Pruitt took over Tennessee’s program and immediately began upgrading the Vols’ roster. He looked everywhere for help — the high school and junior-college ranks, as well as the graduate-transfer market.

The result? Tennessee’s two-deep that was released on Monday featured 11 newcomers on offense and defense.

Alabama grad transfer Brandon Kennedy is Tennessee’s starting center; JUCO transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson is the Vols’ top tight end; freshmen Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson are bracketed as co-starters at cornerback.

Pruitt fulfilled his goal of overhauling the roster.

“I think it’s improved our football team just because of competition,” Pruitt said Monday.

Now the question is how much it will improve Tennessee’s record.

The Vols will face a difficult schedule this season. The Action Network’s projections have Tennessee favored against only three opponents: East Tennessee State, UTEP and Charlotte.

That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The hope for Tennessee is that Pruitt and his coaching staff can tap into the potential of several players who have so far failed to live up to their recruiting hype.

Based on five-year recruiting ranks, Tennessee has the 12th-most talent of any team in the country. That’s a far cry from 4-8.

Tennessee’s defense is filled with former 4- and 5-star signees, including safety Nigel Warrior, who could be an All-SEC selection by season’s end.

The Vols’ offense will likely be led by quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports. Guarantano has impressed Tennessee’s coaches since they started working with him in the spring.

It’s unreasonable to expect every player on Tennessee’s roster to blossom just because a new coaching staff is on campus, but what if a good number of them do?

Injuries have played a major role in Tennessee’s underachievement the last two seasons. If the Vols stay relatively healthy, the coaching staff believes it has enough talent to work with.

Tennessee’s goal for 2018 is modest: get to a bowl game and try to build for the future. That’s a fair objective considering the Vols’ win total of 5.5 (-125).

Tennessee has two home games — Florida on Sept. 22 and Missouri on Nov. 17 — that will be key toward getting to a bowl game. If Tennessee can split those two and beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the Vols should reach six wins.

Pruitt knows he’s taking on a difficult job, and just like the players, he and his staff have a lot to prove.

Pruitt has never been a head coach; offensive coordinator Tyson Helton is the lone play-caller for the first time in his career; inside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer has added co-defensive coordinator to his duties.

It helps that Pruitt has gained his players’ trust. While Pruitt has never been a head coach, his five national championships as an assistant have helped grab everyone’s attention.

Pruitt has high expectations for himself at Tennessee. He wants to win a national championship with the Vols just like he did at Alabama and Florida State.

For now, it’s about trying to reach the postseason. Bet on Pruitt to get that done in Year 1.

Credit:

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jeremy Pruitt

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