Tennessee might not be winning a lot of football games these days … but rare is the boring week on The Hill. Whether it’s a Vol Navy boat fire, or a dude who sneaked his pet squirrel into Neyland Stadium, you never really know what’s going to happen in the world of the Vols.

Last Saturday against No. 3 Georgia, Tennessee fans saw something different and very encouraging at the same time … a Vols team that showed improvement.

In the first half, Tennessee played its best 26 minutes of the season. The Vols got confident throws from their quarterback. Their top 2 receivers went toe-to-toe with one of the best defenses in the league. The defense bent but didn’t break while twice forcing Georgia to settle for field goals.

But after that, the tens of thousands of visitors clad in red and black were the happiest bunch in the Neyland Stadium bleachers. A 14-13 Vols advantage in the final stages of the 1st half turned into a 43-14 Bulldogs rout. Still, that result gave Vols fans hope that brighter days are ahead.

The bad news is that the Georgia game also proved that it’s going to take awhile before Tennessee can get to those happier times. Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt simply doesn’t have the talent or depth to realistically compete against the upper echelon of the SEC. That might happen someday … but not today.

In the present day, true freshman Brian Maurer fared well in his starting debut. This wasn’t a repeat of the Nathan Peterman situation when Butch Jones famously threw him to the wolves in his 1st career start in Gainesville in 2013. Maurer completed 50% of his passes for 259 yards and 2 TDs before he was knocked out of the game on a brutal hit in the 4th quarter. Certainly, there’s a lot to work on, but his upside is higher than Jarrett Guarantano.

Earlier this week Pruitt played a bit coy when it came to announcing a starter against Mississippi State, but it would be stunning to see Guarantano take the first snap on Saturday. Maurer gives the Vols the best chance to win and represents the future. Unless he is hurt, he is starting.

As for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs are 3-2, including a home victory over Kentucky and a blowout loss at Auburn. They’ve had 2 weeks to prepare for Tennessee and have had a week of Maurer film to study.

This game marks the return of Bob Shoop to Knoxville. Shoop was hired as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator in 2016, a move that was praised across the college football world. His résumé was stacked with success stories, including solid stops at Vanderbilt and Penn State. It should have worked out. But instead of being one of the final pieces to Tennessee’s championship puzzle, the Vols’ defense struggled for much of his 2-year tenure. They gave up a school record 740 yards to Missouri. They were triple-optioned to pieces against Georgia Tech. Florida beat them at the buzzer on a 63-yard bomb after a bust in the secondary.

Shoop resurfaced as the DC in Starkville. Last year his Bulldogs were No. 1 in the nation in total defense and 2nd in scoring defense. The defense lost a lot of NFL talent and has yet to put it together this season.

If Tennessee luck holds true, that’ll happen this weekend.

The Vols’ goal of making it to a bowl game is on life support. A loss would drop Tennessee to 1-5, meaning they could only lose 1 more game and still go bowling. And unless Alabama’s entire football team quits to join the Peace Corps (the toughest job you’ll ever love), the Vols will have that loss waiting for them next week.

I think Tennessee once again will show that they are moving in the right direction against MSU … I just don’t think they are moving fast enough.

Fearless Prediction time …

Mississippi State 24, Tennessee 17.