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Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt walks on the field during the first day of spring NCAA college football practice, Tuesday, March 20, 2018 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Perhaps it's because new Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt already has gone on record as liking his team. And praising his returning quarterbacks. And sounding like his defense, especially the secondary, might be vastly improved from the first eight-loss Big Orange bunch in school history.

Or maybe it's because all that speculation about whether Tiger Woods can become Tiger Woods again on the back nine of Masters Sunday can wait until next week. Maybe it's also because it's at least a day or two early to speculate whether Final Four Cinderella Loyola-Chicago — which knocked off Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament — can become the first-ever team to win a national championship after beating the Volunteers in the tourney.

But whatever the reason, especially with the football Vols' spring game still more than three weeks away (April 21), this seems like the perfect day to consider what kind of record the 2018 team can compile once the season kicks off against West Virginia in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 1.

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Head coach Jeremy Pruitt of the Tennessee Volunteers is shown during spring practice on Haslam Field in Knoxville, Tenn. (Photo: Kyle Zedaker/University of Tennessee Athletics)
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After all, a new coach brings new hope and new expectations, however outsized. And this year's schedule, though still filled with the usual collection of Southeastern Conference heavyweights, also offers a realistic shot for the Vols to win no fewer than six regular-season games and perhaps as many as eight, possibly even nine.

Really.

No, really.

Let's take them one by one, beginning with the Mountaineers.

Knoxville is 231 miles from Charlotte while Morgantown, W.Va., is 377 miles away. Despite both schools having passionate fan bases, the Big Orange Nation should dominate the crowd. And with the Mountaineers having lost their final three games last season, including a 30-14 defeat against Utah in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, UT shouldn't be overwhelmed in talent. Make it Vols 27, UWV 23.

Next comes a home game against East Tennessee State and former Vols quarterback and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. Though always a creative play-caller, Sanders had a few more Jimmys and Joes to execute his X's and O's at UT and Florida State than he'll have with the Buccaneers. Vols win 38-10.

UTEP arrives at Neyland Stadium the following week on its way to a 41-13 whipping as Pruitt starts to grumble about his players not "drinking the poison" after a 3-0 start.

Of course, no team has poisoned UT's seasons more than Florida, but the Gators who'll visit Knoxville on Sept. 22 are a far cry from those who so often have broken the Vols' hearts in the past. Just to keep the magic carpet ride going, make it UT 21, UF 17.

Unfortunately, this is when reality sets in that while Tennessee is better, it still has a year or two to go before being a legitimate SEC East title winner. Stuck between Georgia's hedges, Vols endure their first loss of the year by a 34-21 score.

An off week arrives on Oct. 6, which the Big Orange will need before it visits Auburn seven days later. UT falls to 4-2 following a 28-14 defeat.

Now it's the Third Saturday in October and Pruitt's former boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, once again brings his talented Tide to whip the Vols for a 12th straight time. Make it Bama 27, UT 7.

Which brings us to the pivotal game of the season, the Vols facing South Carolina in Columbia having lost three straight. This is where injuries, fatigue and a fairly strong Gamecocks squad — remember that coach Will Muschamp never has lost to UT — figure to drop the Big Orange to 4-4 for the season with a 24-14 loss.

However, this also figures to be where the oldie/goldie words of Johnny Majors that the fans "always remember what you did in November" will ring true.

Presented with three straight home games against Charlotte, Kentucky and Missouri — the last of which also will be known as the Welcome Home, Derek Dooley game since Dooley is the Tigers' new offensive coordinator — UT will head to the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt with a 7-4 record.

As a side note, when Dooley is asked what happened to Mizzou's offense in a 27-17 loss, he replies, "Where's Sal Sunseri to run the UT defense when I need him?"

But back to the Vanderbilt game. The Commodores whipped former UT coach Butch Jones three times. Pruitt might never lose to VU. Vols win 24-14 to wrap up a TaxSlayer Bowl bid in Jacksonville.

Crazy? Perhaps. Going from eight losses to eight wins in one season within the SEC is a tall task. Then again, how many of you thought two weeks ago that Loyola-Chicago would reach the Final Four?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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