🏈⚾ Tennessee's big title chase

The Vols are another step closer

Hello. This is the Josh and Swain Newsletter, a quick roundup of the week’s top stories and topics involving Tennessee and the sports world.

Here’s what we have for you today:

  • What ESPN’s Football Power Index says about the Vols’ playoff chances

  • How Tennessee can make it back to Omaha for the College World Series

  • The latest question an SEC coach is asking about Tennessee football

  • The ups and downs from following Tennessee and CFB recruiting

TOP-10 TENNESSEE?

ESPN’s FPI sees big potetial with Nico and the Vols

The latest projection for the 2024 season might be the most favorable for Tennessee. 

ESPN updated its Football Power Index earlier this week with rankings for the 2024 season. 

Tennessee came in at No. 9

Most rankings and projections have had Tennessee outside the top 10, commonly in the 11-15 range. 

No. 9? 

That’s quite an endorsement for Josh Heupel’s football team. 

The FPI still has four SEC schools ahead of Tennessee:

No. 1 Georgia
No. 3 Texas
No. 5 Alabama
No. 8 Oklahoma

The Sooners at No. 8 is interesting, considering Tennessee will open SEC play AT Oklahoma on Sept. 21. 

This ranking of the FPI brings us back to the College Football Playoff. 

Does a No. 9 preseason ranking mean the Vols will make the 12-team playoff?

No. 

The FPI gives Tennessee a 36.9 percent chance of making the playoff (which isn’t bad, by the way).

The game in Norman has to be a negative factor, along with playing Alabama and Georgia later in the season. 

But remember: this is a projection. 

Only seven teams have a 50-percent chance or better of reaching the playoff, per the FPI.

The month of September will be critical in Tennessee’s playoff hopes. 

If Tennessee can win its two Power 4 games away from home — NC State in Charlotte on Sept. 7 and then Oklahoma — the Vols will be in a great spot to make a playoff run. 

A 3-1 September wouldn’t kill Tennessee’s playoff hopes, but it would all but require a win vs Alabama OR Georgia and leave no margin for error in other games. 

To repeat: this is all a projection right now, as is the case with other May and June rankings. 

But the FPI might’ve offered the strongest Tennessee projection yet. 

Expect more hype to follow the rest of the summer. 

THE SUPER VOLS

Cal Stark was the Vols’ latest standout in the Knoxville regional

Tennessee baseball will begin super regional play on Friday against Evansville. 

The Vols and Purple Aces will play a best two-of-three series for a spot in the College World Series. 

Game times for the two (or three) games:

◼️ Friday 3 PM ET (ESPN2)
◼️ Saturday 11 AM ET (ESPN2)
◼️ Sunday 6 PM ET (ESPNU, if necessary)

Tennessee is a huge favorite in this series as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament facing Evansville, the No. 4 seed from the East Carolina regional. 

VFL Craig Cobb, a starting pitcher on the Vols’ 2005 World Series team, is back as our NCAA tournament correspondent to help us get ready for the super regional. 

Here’s our Q&A preview of the upcoming weekend. 

Q: What stood out about Tennessee’s performance in the Knoxville regional?  

Cobb: The Vols easily won the regional despite some things not going to plan. The starting pitching during the first two games wasn't stellar. Only getting four full innings from Chris Stamos and Drew Beam and them giving up five of the 12 runs highlighted the lack of true starting pitching depth. That said, the bullpen was phenomenal. AJ Causey was terrific and shut down the 1st inning momentum NKU had going. Andrew Behnke went three shutout innings to shut down Indiana's chances and allowed our offense to extend the lead and put the game away. Snead was lights out vs. Southern Miss.  

The other thing that stood out was the offense on Sunday. Christian Moore, Blake Burke and Billy Amick went 1-13 with 0 runs scored, and one RBI — and the offense still put up 12 runs on 10 hits with five home runs and two doubles. Southern Miss kept the Big 3 at the top from doing any damage and it didn't matter. The lineup is very deep and anyone can get a rally going and do damage at any time.

Q: Evansville was a 4 seed in the East Carolina regional but is here for a reason. What stands out about the Purple Aces? 

Cobb: They've been on a good run in the postseason sweeping their conference tournament to get into the field. They carried that momentum into regionals and won 3 of 4 to make their first super regional. They've got a freshman left-handed pitcher (Kenton Deverman) that beat East Carolina in Game 1 in a tough environment. Their closer Harris is solid. Their offense has averaged 11 runs per game in the postseason (all against mid-major teams). Their pitching isn't much deeper than those two arms. Outside of Deverman, their team ERA in the regional was 11.63 with a 2.71 WHIP (baserunners per inning). They also walked 21 in those 28 innings and gave up 9 home runs. Even with Deverman's eight good innings vs. ECU on Friday, the entire staff had an 8.00 ERA, a 1.89 WHIP and gave up 10 home runs. That is a ton of free passes, baserunners, and home runs to give up vs. offenses that aren't as good as Tennessee's. If that continues they'll have to outslug the Vols.

Their offense revolves around Mark Shallenberger and Kip Fougerousse. Fougerousse has hit a home run in their last six games and in 7 of their 8 postseason games. Can't let those guys beat you.

Q: How important is Game 1 in this best-of-three series?  

Cobb: Game 1 is huge here. Evansville will throw Deverman who has clearly been their best starter. You can't allow them to continue to believe they can hang with the Vols. They beat ECU in Game 1 at ECU and went on to win that regional. Fresno State won the CWS in 2008 as a 4 seed in the regionals. Anything can happen in baseball.

Q: Can having Drew Beam as the Game 2 pitcher serve as an advantage for Tennessee?  

Cobb: Yes. If the Vols win Game 1 and have Beam waiting in the wings matching up against a non-Deverman arm from Evansville, that is a huge advantage to the Vols. And if the Vols were to lose Game 1 then having an experienced arm like Beam makes you feel as good as you can with your season on the line.

Q: Tennessee is a massive favorite in this series — how important is focus this week while preparing for a “weaker” opponent?  

Cobb: It's huge. There are enough veteran guys from the 2022 team that was also ranked No. 1 and setting program home run records that can keep things focused for the team. Moore, Burke, Tears, Ensley, Beam, Kirby, Sechrist, Taylor were all on that 2022 roster. I also think Coach Vitello and this team have learned from the 2022 team and have kept their emotions in check. The 2022 team was a very fun team to watch but they all ran hot at all times which led to some ejections that were costly. This team seems to be more even keeled with a different swagger to them.

Q: Tennessee’s bottom of the order led the way closing out the regional against Southern Miss. What kind of pressure does UT’s lineup put on opposing pitchers?  

Cobb: I loved facing lineups in which I felt I could attack hitters 6-9 and even the leadoff and 2nd hitters to some extent because I didn't fear they would do more than hit a double off me. It allowed for some pressure relief so I didn't feel that there was a wave of damage coming (*cough cough* Vandy). I knew if I controlled the bottom of the lineup and didn't set the stage for the top and heart of the order then I'd be fine and would have a chance to win.

There aren't any breaks in this Tennessee lineup. They all grind out at bats. It is alternating righty/lefty from 1-9. Pitchers are caught in a weird place where they need to attack but have to be careful but can't be too fine because they'll all take walks. If they walk now there are guys on base for someone to do damage. And that same cycle repeats but with more pressure. That's how it snowballs.  

Starting off the game with CMO, who has 29 home runs, isn't fun so a pitcher is on edge immediately. Burke is a beast. Barrels (great nickname & stellar walk-up music) swings as hard as he can every time and usually early in the count so you can't sneak strike 1...and he has 21 home runs. Dreiling is a professional hitter and my son's favorite player. Then you think you catch a break getting to Ensley who is "only" hitting .285 with "only" 9 home runs, but he's been on a tear since he lit up the Gators (.385 avg, 22 runs, 18 RBI, 15 walks, 7 doubles, 3 HR in his last 17 games). Then you get Tears who is a monster. Then Curley is your first underclassman except he's huge and started getting hot again in regionals. The DH spot is unsettled still but you'll get someone with 5-6 HRs in limited action. On paper, Stark is the biggest break you get but he grinds out at bats, can draw a walk or get hit by a pitch, and also has 9 home runs.

The Vols hit 12 home runs last weekend and seven of them came from lineup spots 5-9. Seven different Vols hit home runs and the only spots that didn't were Burke and the DH spot. Four different Vols hit multiple home runs (Amick, Dreiling, Curley, Stark).

Q: Same fill-in-the-blank question as last week: Tennessee will advance to the College World Series if _____. 

Cobb: they continue to play the same way they've played all year.

Q: Is there anything I’ve missed that you think we should point out before the super regional?  

Cobb: It would be nice if the concessions would have brunch on Saturday!

SPORTS NUGGETS

🏈 Clark Brooks wrote about the 50 most impactful transfers in the SEC for 2024. (Three Tennessee players made the list.)

🏈 Here is the full CFB Playoff schedule with start times and broadcast info for the 2024 season.

🏈 New revenue source: the NCAA has OK’d commercial sponsor ads on football fields for regular season games.

🏀 Isaac Trotter of CBS Sports ranks Tennessee basketball No. 9 in the latest projection for the 2024-25 season.

🏀 Tennessee announced a home-and-home series with Louisville over the next two seasons.

🏀 Big story to watch: UConn head coach Dan Hurley will meet with the Lakers Friday regarding their head coaching vacancy.

🏀 The return of Kristaps Porzingis offered a big lift for Boston, which handled Dallas 107-89 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

THE NEXT UT FOOTBALL QUESTION

New starting safety Andre Turrentine hopes to lift UT’s defense

Another week brother another anonymous SEC coach’s quote about Tennessee, courtesy Athlon Sports.

The latest quote (as shared by Michael Bratton) regarding Tennessee:

“Defensively, they’re not at the level of the national title-caliber programs in this league, but they’re better than when Josh Heupel took over. 

Put them right outside of the playoff contenders for now, but the quarterback could be really special.”

Not sure there’s much to argue with there. 

Tennessee will have a chance to prove if the defense is national title-caliber — and it might be — but the new-look secondary and young linebackers offer questions ahead of the season. 

This is the second SEC coach in as many weeks to note the high-end potential of quarterback Nico Iamelava. 

That can’t be discounted in the conversation. 

With the playoff talk, there are three position groups that matter the most:

• Quarterback
• Offensive line
• Defensive line

Tennessee has high-end potential with all three. 

Will they all reach their potential?

That’s still a question and perhaps a reach due to injury risk, playing the odds, etc.

But the potential is there. 

For now, so are the questions. 

TENNESSEE’S BIG SALES PITCH

Josh Heupel and his football staff will focus on recruiting this weekend as the Diamond Vols keep fans’ attention. 

The Vols will host several football official visitors this weekend to start a big recruiting stretch in June. 

Several top targets of Tennessee visited elsewhere last weekend and left impressed with those other schools. 

That’s how it goes in recruiting — other teams get the same shot the Vols do. 

Austin Price of Volquest joined us Wednesday and noted a few Tennessee targets who left the Vols with some ground to make up:

◼️ DB Lagonza “Shaedy” Hayward
◼️ DL Charles House”
◼️ DB Onis Konanbanny

“For me personally,” Price said, “I feel like it’s less likely they flip Shaedy Hayward momentum back than Charles House. I think Charles House is much more doable.”

There’s also the recruitment of five-star offensive lineman David Sanders Jr., the top player on UT’s board. 

He visited Clemson last weekend and has trips to four schools remaining. 

He’ll visit Tennessee on June 14 and Ohio State to finish on June 21. 

“I still feel like Tennessee’s got a lot of momentum here,” Price said of Sanders. “He’s still going to take all these visits, so Tennessee will have to survive that.

“But if you listen to what I’ve been talking about for a while, if things ended today and you said you’ve gotta make a pick, I’d pick Tennessee.”

Price also made it clear the recruiting battle for Sanders isn’t over.

Tennessee appears to be in a good recruiting position — with Sanders and others — but there’s obvious work to be done.

That should be expected when recruiting against schools like Alabama, Georgia, Florida State and Ohio State.

The recruiting roller coaster is a bumpy ride. 

So hold on for the next few weeks. 

Check out our full conversation with Austin Price below.

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