Can Tennessee make a bowl game? It'll be dicey
Tennessee has played 4 games. They’ve won twice and lost twice. Mathematics tells us that the Vols need 4 wins in their final 8 games to get to the 6 victory mark they need to be bowl eligible.
(Yes I know that a 5 win team sneaks into a bowl game from time to time, but I doubt you’d see a 5-7 Tennessee team accept a bid to the Poulan Weed Eater Bowl or whatever they are calling postseason games these days).
Getting to a bowl game in his first season would be quite the accomplishment for head coach Josh Heupel. Lane Kiffin did it, but he was gifted a roster that saw 6 players taken in the following year’s NFL Draft, including first-rounders in safety Eric Berry and defensive tackle Dan Williams. Derek Dooley did too, which still defies belief when you look at his disastrous 3-year tenure.
Butch Jones didn’t get to a bowl game in his first season, and neither did Jeremy Pruitt. Can Heupel overachieve?
Well, let’s take a look at the rest of the schedule:
They finish the season against South Alabama and Vanderbilt, 2 teams that Tennessee will be heavy favorites against. The Vols will also play SEC favorites Alabama and Georgia, 2 teams that Tennessee will be heavy underdogs against. For the sake of argument we will say that there are no upsets, which puts Tennessee 2 wins away.
That leaves road games against Missouri (this Saturday) and Kentucky (Week 10), with home contests against South Carolina (Week 6) and Ole Miss (Week 7).
Can the Vols split those 4 games?
The answer is … maybe?
You can make a case that all 4 games are various degrees of winnable. .. and they could lose each of them, too. Missouri has typically been a rock fight. Kentucky blew out the Vols a year ago, but Tennessee has dominated that series. South Carolina had Tennessee’s number under Will Muschamp, but he’s gone and maybe the Vols have turned the corner against the Gamecocks. Ole Miss has a terrific offense, but is that defense really as good as they’ve looked? (Ask us again Saturday night, after Kiffin’s Rebels play Alabama.)
If Tennessee is to get it done, Heupel will have to make corrections on the fly. In their 2 losses to Pittsburgh and Florida, the Vols were penalized 23 times for 219 yards. That has to get cleaned up because those flags are drive- and momentum-destroyers.
The wide receivers have to get better at their craft, too. In each game this season there have been multiple drops. You can get away with that against Bowling Green and Tennessee Tech, but not against most SEC foes.
The Vols need to figure out who their quarterback is, too, and keep him upright. Heupel apparently prefers Joe Milton, but he has been banged up, and was knocked out of the Pittsburgh game. There have been better results with Hendon Hooker, and he’s more willing to run. But that opens him up to more hits, which in turn puts him at risk. Hooker, who made a couple of really nice throws Saturday against Florida, was knocked out at the end of the game. Uncertainty at quarterback isn’t good for any team, especially this one. If they keep switching, for whatever reason, the odds are that this offense will sputter.
These are the types of things that keep coaches up at night, but finding the right answers is why they make millions of dollars.
There was a time when bowl games were a given at Tennessee. Vols fans would put bowl trips in their yearly family budgets. Miami, Tempe, Tampa … didn’t matter. They’d find a way inside the stadium. There’s no reason that shouldn’t always be the case at UT.
We’ll find out in the next couple of months if the Vols will be busy this winter. The climb starts Saturday at Mizzou.