When you’re charged with compiling a preseason Top 25, you’re always on the prowl for Surprise Teams — if for no other reason than to ward off compiler’s boredom. (Most such listings, as I’m sure you know, are but a roundup of the usual suspects, and what self-respecting pseudo seer wants to be predictable?) I really wanted to pick Tennessee to do something big, for two reasons:
1. The Volunteers just had a major recruiting haul, Rivals ranking the 2014 class No. 5 nationally.
2. With Florida doomed to Muschamp mediocrity until Jeremy Foley finally sees the light, there seemed space for some team to break upward in the SEC East.
Then I checked Tennessee’s schedule, and I thought, “So who else looks promising?”
The Vols play at Georgia on Saturday, and some folks were calling the Bulldogs the best team in the land not so long ago. Tennessee last played at Oklahoma, which some folks believe is now the best team in the land. Still upcoming for the Big Orange: Home dates against Florida, Alabama and Missouri, plus road dates with Ole Miss and South Carolina. The famous Phil Steele ranked Tennessee’s as the second-toughest schedule, trailing only Notre Dame, and who am I to argue with Big Phil?
At SEC Media days, the consensus among those who cover the Vols was that Tennessee would do well to go 6-6. The belief back then was that the opener against Utah State could easily be a loss. Turns out it wasn’t. The Vols won 38-7, and that caught some eyes. So, albeit to a lesser degree, did the 34-10 loss to Oklahoma in Norman, which some figured would be much worse. (Tennessee was driving to make it 27-17 in the fourth quarter when Justin Worley’s tipped pass became a 100-yard interception return.)
Which brings us to Saturday’s game between the ol’ hedges. Georgia fans live in fear of early kickoffs in Athens — last season’s crushing loss to Missouri had such a start time — and there’s reason to be wary of the Vols. They can move the ball. Worley had a rough night in Norman but was excellent against Utah State, and Tennessee always has good receivers. Lest we forget, the Bulldogs’ SEC debut under defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wasn’t a success: They yielded 447 yards and lost 38-35 at South Carolina.
Nobody expects Georgia, which is favored by 17 points, to lose. But Tennessee is young enough and talented enough that it’s going to beat somebody good sometime soon. If this game were in November, the Bulldogs might be in for a long day. It still being September, I’d guess they’re in a for a long first half.