Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee opens up the sixth season of the Tony Vitello era this tonight against Arizona at the Desert Invitational in Arizona.
We’ve already tackled what Tennessee has on the mound and at the plate, as well as some bold predictions, so let’s turn to the Vols’ schedule and some preseason predictions.
The non-conference schedule is slightly amped up this season and that starts this weekend in the Desert Invitational where Tennessee will play a pair of teams that made the NCAA Tournament as two-seeds last season.
It starts with Arizona which has been one of the best programs in the west coast but is in a transition phase as Chip Hale is in his second season after Jay Johnson left for LSU. Johnson took plenty of talent with him to Baton Rouge so there was a bit of a dip last season in Tucson. Hale has restocked the roster this season and as Tony Vitello said earlier this week, the Wildcats have “Omaha potential.”
Grand Canyon has one of the better mid-major programs in the country and is poised to be an NCAA Tournament team again this season after going two-and-out in the Stillwater Regional last season. UC-San Diego is the worst team in the event and one Tennessee should handle on Sunday.
Even past the strong opening weekend, Tennessee hosts Gonzaga to Lindsey Nelson Stadium the first weekend of March. The Zags are another one of those strong west coast mid-major programs and are coming off a trip to the Blacksburg Regional.
Matchups with Dayton and Moorehead State round out the pre-conference weekend series slate.
The SEC schedule is always a grind and that’s no different this year. In fact, the Vols get a bit of the short end of the stick this season as they don’t face Alabama, Auburn or Ole Miss out of the west. The SEC’s coaches predicted Ole Miss to finish four, Alabama to finish fifth and Auburn to finish sixth in the SEC West.
Tennessee’s schedule is very difficult in the middle, facing Texas A&M (home), LSU (road), Florida (home), Arkansas (road) and Vanderbilt (home) from the second to sixth weekend of conference play. The Vols start at Missouri and then face Mississippi State, Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina in a softer end of the regular season.
The SEC schedule is challenging as always and includes a gauntlet run.
More From RTI: Tennessee Baseball’s Opening Day Starting Predictions
Regular Season Record Prediction: 44-12 (20-10 SEC)
Jared Dickey: Dickey is looking to follow up a phenomenal redshirt freshman season that saw injuries sideline him for much of the year with a consistent year start-to-finish. It’s hard to choose anyone other than Chase Dollander as team MVP because he’s the programs best player in decades. However, Tennessee has a ton of elite pitching and three other players who would be top end SEC weekend starters at other SEC schools. The Vols have to replace a ton of offensive production and Dickey’s consistency at the plate combined with his power makes him the exact guy Tennessee needs a big year from. I think they get a massive one. Dickey leads the Vols in batting and hits double-digit home runs. His versatility in the field will see him help Tennessee in a number of ways there as well.
This is a really challenging one to choose from because the Vols brought in a lot of talented newcomers. That includes division one transfers, junior college transfers and prep prospects. Kansas shortstop transfer Maui Ahuna is the most obvious answer but Merritt raked the back half of spring and has continued that into the three-week preseason practice. He’s suspended for the first two games of the season by NCAA rules so you’ll have to wait to see him. However, Merritt will likely start against UC-San Diego and I expect him to lock up an everyday starting job.
Home Run Leader
Blake Burke: Burke hit 14 long balls in just 95 at-bats as a freshman. An absolutely staggering number which leads you wondering what he’ll do as a full season starter. The only question surrounding Burke is how he handles being in the middle of the lineup with opponents trying to pitch around him. As a sophomore “addicted to hitting”, I think he’ll handle it just fine. Burke hits 20-plus bombs this season as he marches his way to breaking the program’s career home run record.
Chase Dollander, Chase Burns, Drew Beam
This one is no surprise. The trio was the Vols’ weekend starters last season and will be back there again.
Top Bullpen Arm
Camden Sewell: Sewell has been one of Tennessee’s best bullpen arms for the entirety of his time in Knoxville and that will continue this season. Entering the season with a four-year career 2.53 ERA, we know Sewell is extremely effective and versatile. The only question is whether he finds himself in more long relief or closing opportunities.
Christian Moore: Like Burke, Moore shined in some high leverage opportunities as a freshman. The New York native is Tennessee’s full time starting second baseman this season, and after a year of maturing I expect him to run with his opportunity. The right-hander brings some swagger and edge to the field and is not short of self confidence. Moore gets off to a hot start to the season and doesn’t slow down.
Wyatt Evans: This is the hardest prediction to make. In the pitching preview earlier this week, I named eight different arms that are competing for weekend innings out of the bullpen in addition to three pitchers I feel confident will be in that role. A number of those competitors are newcomers which eliminates them from consideration. The left-handed Evans followed up a promising freshman season in a smaller role with an impressive fall. I think Evans earns plenty of opportunities early in the season and runs with it.