Here’s hoping that Tennessee’s players enjoyed their brief respite and got plenty of rest during their bye week. They’ll need it. It’s officially back to the gauntlet.

The Vols had some extra time to lick their wounds after a 2-3 start that included lopsided losses to West Virginia, Florida and Georgia. Now the Vols travel to Auburn this week, followed by a home game against Alabama and another road trip to South Carolina. The Vols will be underdogs in all of those games before a likely win against Charlotte on Nov. 3. The next three SEC games are a daunting task for most any team in the nation, and much more so for the Vols considering their current state.

As for UT’s state moving forward, that’s a bit of a mystery to anyone outside of the program. Everyone can agree that the Vols don’t have the roster to compete with the nation’s elite, but it’s much harder to assess UT’s mindset as a team. The Vols showed some fight in a 38-12 loss to Georgia last week. There’s something to be said for that, but it’s fair to wonder how long the Vols’ spirit will withstand the constant heartache with nothing tangible to play for.

In a much different way, the same could be said for UT’s next opponent. Auburn will have plenty to prove this week considering they are coming off a 23-9 loss to Mississippi State, but the Tigers’ preseason goals are almost assuredly unattainable at this point. Perhaps the Vols will get a team still licking their wounds now that it appears the Tigers have lost any chance to win the SEC West. Perhaps that’s just optimism. No matter what Auburn’s mindset is, the Tigers are more talented than the Vols and much more accomplished. Even if they’re off their game on Saturday, War Eagle will be tough to beat.

While Auburn’s offense will always be the lead story with head coach Gus Malzahn at the helm, the Tigers’ defense deserves more credit than they usually receive. Auburn ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up 14.3 points per game. Tennessee is 12th in the SEC in scoring with 26 points per game. That doesn’t bode well for the Vols.

Statistically — and according to Alabama head coach Nick Saban — UT’s offense should have less of a challenge against Bama’s defense. Yeah, right.

Alabama may not be as suffocating as they’ve been in the past, considering they are ranked sixth in the SEC with 16 points allowed per game, but that’s incredibly misleading. Alabama’s offense leads the nation with 56 points per game. That has led to some garbage time scores from opposing offenses, which has skewed Bama’s defensive ranking. Despite Saban’s complaints about his defense on Saturday following a 65-31 win against Arkansas, Bama’s defense is stout as usual.

Tennessee’s best hope for a win in its next trio of SEC games will come at South Carolina on Oct. 27. With no real chance of winning the SEC East, the Gamecocks will be playing out the rest of their schedule for pride, which is about all the Vols have left to play for.

Barring at least three upsets, the Vols aren’t going to a bowl game. Barring at least one upset, the Vols won’t match the 4-8 record that got former coach Butch Jones fired last season.

Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer met with the Knoxville Quarterback Club on Monday in place of coach Jeremy Pruitt, who was scheduled to speak at the weekly event but decided it would be best to focus on recruiting. Fulmer strongly praised Pruitt as a great coach. With the upcoming schedule, Fulmer had better be correct. If not, a sad season for UT fans will become a historically bad one for the record books. A 3-9 record is the most likely outcome with this schedule looming.