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

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The Vols had the season from hell in 2017, and while the rebuild will require patience — both for Jeremy Pruitt and Tennessee’s fan base — there’s no doubt the expectation is to get back to the postseason.

But can they?

On Wednesday, I outlined three reasons why Tennessee could go bowling in 2018, but today is a look at why that might not happen in Pruitt’s first season on The Hill.

1. The schedule 

It’s manageable but definitely not easy. ESPN currently ranks Tennessee’s 2018 slate as the 57th-toughest schedule in the country, but few teams will face a tougher five-game stretch this fall.

After opening the year in Charlotte against West Virginia, a potential preseason Top-15 team, the Vols will get a two-week reprieve before playing Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn, Alabama and at South Carolina. Even if the Gators won’t be world-beaters in 2018, that’s a murders row.

While Tennessee finishes the season with its annual angel food cake November, Missouri is a toss-up game and the Vols have lost to Vanderbilt four out of the last six years.

The path to a bowl game is certainly there (starting with victories against ETSU, UTEP, Charlotte, Kentucky) but it’s going to take Tennessee winning a couple coin-flip affairs to actually make it come to fruition.

2. Lack of depth 

Tennessee will enter the 2018 season with less than 85 scholarship players, and that includes injured offensive lineman Chance Hall and Trey Smith, both of whom have uncertain statuses right now, and a slew of newcomers slated for much-needed redshirts (Jacob Warren, JT Shrout, Brandon Davis, Tanner Antonutti, etc.).

That number also doesn’t include, yet, any potential attrition from the current roster.

As has been the case the last two seasons at Tennessee, the Vols will be in big trouble with any real injuries this fall, especially at defensive back and the offensive line.

The Vols are still scouring the grad-transfer (and JUCO) market for upgrades at cornerback and offensive line, but thus far, they’ve been unable to sign a plug-and-play contributor at either spot.

Tennessee has seven lineman on its current two-deep with three or fewer career starts. It desperately needs Smith to be return to action and K’Rojhn Calbert to at least be a rotational piece. Even then, the offensive line could still struggle.

The situation at cornerback isn’t any rosier, which is why the Vols may have to rely on freshman Alontae Taylor learning the position on the fly in college.

Tennessee’s special teams were normally a strength under Butch Jones, but they began to suffer in 2017 as injuries overtook the roster. Those same problems could persist this fall, and that doesn’t even account for having to replace a Ray Guy Award candidate at punter.

Overall, Pruitt knows he faces an uphill battle rebuilding the roster and those current limitations could be the difference between winning and losing a couple close games in Year 1.

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3. Uncertainty at quarterback 

No matter how you view the upside of either Jarrett Guarantano or Keller Chryst, it's a stretch to say Tennessee is completely set at quarterback.

Considering the question marks for both guys, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where the two signal-callers start multiple games this year.

While the Vols have more playmakers than last season and new OC Tyson Helton is regarded as a quarterback whisperer, can Guarantano or Chryst actually become the straw that stirs drink for Tennessee’s offense? We don't know.

Can either quarterback elevate the play of their teammates?

Pruitt was clearly less than impressed with Guarantano’s progress this spring — both publicly and behind the scenes — and Chryst was benched on an average Stanford team a year ago. Combined, the two quarterbacks completed just 58 percent of their passes and averaged less than 7.0 yards per attempt in 2017.

For Tennessee to make a bowl game this fall, it needs above-average quarterback play and based on what we know about the two options right now, that’s no guarantee.