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Will they or won't they? 3 reasons why the Vols will go bowling in 2018

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After consecutive nine-win seasons, everything went wrong for Tennessee in 2017.

Legitimately, everything.

The offensive line cratered. A ballyhooed quarterback competition proved fruitless and a terrible run defense somehow got worse. There was plenty of off-the-field turmoil as well, ultimately concluding with the firings of head coach Butch Jones and athletics director John Currie.

For the first time in school history, Tennessee lost eight games in a season and went winless in SEC play. The Vols became a punching bag of the college football universe until Phillip Fulmer parachuted in to save a bungled coaching search and hired Jeremy Pruitt.

The question is what to make of Tennessee now?

With spring practice in the rear view mirror, Vegas and a variety of other projection models see the Vols as a fringe bowl team in 2018. According to several online sportsbooks, their over/under is set at 5.5 wins. ESPN’s Football Power Index, which certainly has its flaws but is still a decent data system, pegs Tennessee to win 5.8 games based on 10,000 simulations of the 2018 season.

There’s no doubt that Tennessee’s new staff believes that a bowl game is necessary to promote an upward trajectory of the program for the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes, but can they make that a reality this fall?

A final prediction will come in several months, but for now, here are three reasons why the Vols will go bowling in 2018, and three reasons why they might not make the postseason coming Thursday.

1. Improved coaching staff

Butch Jones had some quality assistants on his staff last season, but by in large, the group was underwhelming. Fit and continuity were issues, as was experience and most notably an ability to maximize talent.

As a whole, UT’s nine assistants last year combined for 11 years of coaching in the SEC — and 10 of those seasons were between original staffers Robert Gillespie and Tommy Thigpen.

Conversely, Jeremy Pruitt’s inaugural staff is no stranger to the best football conference in the country. Not even counting Pruitt’s time at Alabama and Georgia, Tennessee’s new staff features four assistants (Will Friend, Tracy Rocker, Kevin Sherrer and Chris Rumph) with at least four years of coaching in the rigors of the SEC. Pruitt has also worked with staffers Charles Kelly (Florida State), Brian Niedermemyer (Georgia and Alabama) and Chris Weinke (Alabama).

The Vols have overhauled their strength and conditioning department, handing the keys to well-regarded Craig Fitzgerald.

Overall, Tennessee is betting on continuity, a fresh culture change and experience paying immediate dividends for the development of its team this fall.

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2. A deeper pool of playmakers + a more innovative offensive scheme

It would be difficult for Tennessee’s offense to be worse in 2018. The Vols averaged a paltry 4.77 yards per play — good for No. 120 nationally and last in the SEC. A bad offensive line was certainly a deterrent (more on that issue tomorrow), but Tennessee was also bereft of impact playmakers.

Marquez Callaway was too inconsistent. Jauan Jennings played around 30 snaps before getting hurt and John Kelly was running in cement by the end of the year.

The Vols still don’t have a truly game-breaking playmaker, but they do have more available options this fall. Perhaps no unit improved more this spring than Tennessee’s wideouts, with guys like Jordan Murphy, Latrell Williams and Callaway all displaying growth. The nation’s top JUCO tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson will be added to the mix this summer, and guys like Austin Pope and Princeton Fant could become nice complimentary pieces.

Unlike last season where Kelly mainly carried the load, Tennessee is expected to take an egalitarian approach to its backfield, with Ty Chandler, Madre London, Jeremy Banks and Tim Jordan all sharing snaps.

The obvious matzah ball here is what happens at quarterback, but overall, Tyson Helton, whose offense is much more multiple and is designed to push the ball vertically, has the pieces to at least mix-and-match to create more explosive plays.

3. The unknown(s)

There’s zero doubt that Tennessee is going to struggle at times next season, but even acknowledging that, there’s still a lot we don’t know about this football team — some of which could be viewed in a glass half-full manner.

If Butch Jones was the problem, what happens if that dynamic is simply removed from the equation? What if Shy Tuttle, Jonathan Kongbo and Jarrett Guarantano actually live up to their blue-chip billings?

What happens if Tennessee’s run defense simply becomes average as opposed to a tire fire? What if the late additions to the 2018 class, both JUCOs and grad transfers, become legitimate contributors? What if Darrin Kirkland Jr. finally stays healthy? What if Nigel Warrior becomes an All-SEC player?

If the Vols hit on more than a few of these unknowns, they’ll go bowling this December.