The main goal for the Tennessee Vols in 2019 is to show improvement and reach a bowl game for the first time since the 2016 season.

But if fans are being honest, a 6-6 regular season would be a bit of a letdown. Sure, it would be an improvement after a 5-7 season in 2018, but it wouldn’t be a “big leap forward” for the program. And that’s what fans are hoping to see in Jeremy Pruitt’s season season as the Vols’ head coach.

Winning seven games would be a solid season for UT, but it still wouldn’t really make a statement. Winning eight games, however, would signal that Tennessee is truly on an upward trajectory under Pruitt.

Of course, no one with any credibility is predicting the Vols to win eight games this season. Which is one reason I think it’s entirely possible it could happen.

College football can be wild and unpredictable. Nearly every year there’s a team that comes out of nowhere to be relevant.

Why not Tennessee in 2019?

Unfortunately for the Volunteers, the path to eight wins isn’t easy.

In fact, I think there’s only one way UT wins eight regular season games.

Here’s how I think their “path to eight wins” breaks down.

The “gimme” games

The Vols are fortunate to have three “gimme” games on their schedule in 2019. Matchups against Georgia State (8/31), Chattanooga (9/14) and UAB (11/2) should be close to automatic wins. That’s nothing against those programs, it’s just obvious that Tennessee should be able to out-talent them.

There’s three wins for the Vols. And just like that they’re almost halfway to eight. But this is where the certainties end.

Should win games

There are two games I think the Vols should win in 2019, but I can’t quite put them in the definite column.

BYU (9/7) and Vanderbilt (11/30).

The Vols have lost to Vandy for three straight years. And BYU is no slouch.

But I still believe that Tennessee has more talent. I’d be surprised if the Vols lost either of these games, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. However, if Tennessee is going to win eight games, they must win both of these. That gets them to five wins.

Automatic loss games

I just don’t see anyway that UT beats Alabama (10/19) or Georgia (10/5). Both of those programs are just operating on a different level than Tennessee.

Could the Vols eventually get to a point where they’re on the same level as Bama and Georgia?

Of course. In fact, that’s the goal under Pruitt. But it’s not happening in 2019.

Toss up games

This leaves the Vols with five “toss up” games.

  • Florida (9/21)
  • Mississippi State (10/12)
  • South Carolina (10/26)
  • Kentucky (11/16)
  • Missouri (11/23)

I think Tennessee is capable of winning all five of those games. But they’re also capable of losing all five.

In order to get to eight wins, though, they only need to win three of these games.

The Vols haven’t beat South Carolina since 2015, but that matchup is one of the few that’s been close the last several years. Even in 2017, when the walls were caving in on the program, Tennessee only lost to the Gamecocks by six.

If the Vols are going to win eight, they have to beat South Carolina in Knoxville. That will put them with six wins. They also need to beat Kentucky again. There’s no reason that Tennessee, with more talent than they had last season, shouldn’t expect to beat the Wildcats again in 2019.

So now we have Tennessee at seven wins, with three games that we still haven’t addressed.

I don’t really like the Vols’ chances against Florida in the swamp this season. That’s a tough place to play and while I think it’s possible that Tennessee could win, I think it would be irresponsible to suggest they will.

That leaves Mississippi State (10/12) and Missouri (11/23).

The Vols haven’t beat Missouri since 2016. The Tigers have won their last two matchups against Tennessee by a combined 66 points.

Again, it’s possible the Vols could beat Mizzou, but it doesn’t seem smart to pick the team that’s lost by 33 each of the last two years.

So we’re left with the Mississippi State game in Knoxville.

If the Vols want to win eight games in 2019, this is one they have to win. It’s the only logical path Tennessee has to eight wins. The Vols proved last season they can beat a SEC West opponent after beating Auburn on the road. They have the talent and the confidence to beat the Bulldogs.

Predicting the Vols to win eight games isn’t something I’d recommend. But it’s also not as outlandish as some folks believe.

There’s a path to eight wins. It might be a narrow path, but it’s a path nonetheless.

Featured image via Randy Sartin/USA Today