The difference between a thrilling victory and a crushing loss can boil down to a handful of plays on any given Saturday.
Sometimes just one play.
No coach knows this better that Tennessee’s Butch Jones, and no fan base knows it better that the Vol Nation that sometimes supports him.
As the Vols enter a Week 9 matchup with Kentucky, fans stare at their 3-4 record on the stat sheet and wonder what might have been during four close losses to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama.
In fact, one could argue that Tennessee is simply four plays away from a completely different tone to the season.
If you could tweak the outcome of just one play in each of the Vols’ losses, they could be sitting at 7-0 right now and plotting whether a trip to the College Football Playoff was feasible with games against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt left on the schedule.
Instead, they’re hoping to merely secure bowl eligibility.
Here are the plays that could have changed the destiny of the 2015 Tennessee football season:
1. Week 2 vs. Oklahoma: Baker Mayfield’s overtime TD run to extend the game
Oklahoma rallied from a 17-point fourth quarter deficit to force overtime and ultimately beat Tennessee 31-24 at Neyland Stadium.
Even if we grant the Sooners full credit for the comeback and ignore any number of plays the Tennessee defense could’ve made to stop the rally in the fourth quarter, we can boil this loss down to one play in the first overtime.
Tennessee took the ball first in overtime and scored quickly on a Jalen Hurd touchdown run, meaning the Sooners needed to match the touchdown to keep the game going.
Facing a fourth down that could have been the final play of the game, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield extended the contest by keeping the ball on a read-option play and finding his way into the end zone. A stop there from the Vols defense would have meant a victory.
2. Week 4 at Florida: Antonio Callaway’s 63-yard TD reception in final two minutes
This play may be the one that defines the Vols’ entire season.
Tennessee kept Florida right where they wanted them for the better part of 58 minutes, but when it came to keeping the lid on what was once a 13-point fourth quarter lead, the Vols failed in the most advantageous of spots.
Facing fourth-and-14 from their own 37-yard line and trailing 27-21 with under two minutes remaining, the Gators were down to their last chance. If the Vols make a stop here, the game is over.
Instead, Florida freshman QB Will Grier connected with freshman WR Antonio Callaway on a pass that not only netted a first down, but went for a 63-yard go-ahead touchdown after Callaway picked up a block and eluded Tennessee tacklers on his way down the sideline.
Tennessee had a chance to win the game later on a last-second field goal attempt, but the game was ultimately lost on this play.
3. Week 5 vs. Arkansas: Tevin Beanum sacks Joshua Dobbs on Vols’ final drive
Tennessee once held a 14-point lead in this game as well, but we’ll have to concede that Arkansas was the team that was in the driver’s seat for the majority of the second half of a 24-20 Razorbacks win at Neyland Stadium.
Still, the Vols had a chance to win this game on their final drive of the fourth quarter, as they had moved into Arkansas territory with a little more than three minutes remaining. The Vols faced a manageable second-and-5 scenario following a first-down run by QB Joshua Dobbs.
But what happened next essentially cost the Vols a chance at the home win, when Dobbs went down in the backfield for an 8-yard loss, pushing the Vols back into their own territory for third-and-long.
After a couple of incomplete passes, Arkansas was running out the clock on a Hogs victory. If Dobbs gets rid of that ball or avoids the sack, we may be talking about this game differently.
4. Week 8 at Alabama: Joshua Dobbs fumbles on Vols’ final drive
When Tennessee scored to go ahead 14-13 with 5:49 remaining in the game, it looked the Vols might be on the verge of breaking an eight-game losing streak to Alabama, and doing so on the road in Tuscaloosa.
But you have to give credit to the Crimson Tide for taking the ball and marching it right back down the field on the ensuing possession, with a Derrick Henry touchdown run putting Alabama ahead 19-14 with 2:24 remaining.
The Vols had plenty of time on the clock to answer that drive, but after completing one first down, the drive started to fall apart.
An illegal formation penalty, followed by a sack by Alabama’s Jonathan Allen put the Vols up against the wall.
They were defeated on the next play, when Crimson Tide OLB Ryan Anderson got to the quarterback for a second sack in as many plays, but this time Dobbs was unable to hold on to the football and turned it over to Alabama, which ran out the clock from there.