The season opener between Bowling Green and Tennessee pretty much went as expected on Thursday night. Bowling Green struggled offensively, Tennessee had better athletes, and the Volunteers picked up a fairly stress-free 38-6 victory.

New Tennessee coach Josh Heupel gave fans an opening look at what they have so desperately craved over the past few seasons: A fast-paced, entertaining offense capable of putting points on the board.

But the next game presents a much tougher challenge when Pittsburgh comes to Neyland Stadium.

“If you approach it the right way, coaches say between Week 1 to Week 2 is the opportunity to make your biggest improvement,” Heupel said after the Bowling Green game. “I don’t know if that is the only time you can make those strides, but you certainly have the opportunity to deal with the reality of who you are and where you were efficient that night and where you can improve.”

Well, if Tennessee doesn’t improve over this 9-day stretch, the Vols won’t find the end result as pleasing against the Panthers. And that could severely damage their chances of making it to a bowl game.

Let’s say the Vols beat Pittsburgh. Barring a Georgia State-esque loss a week later against Tennessee Tech, they’d be 3-0 heading into Florida and the start of SEC play on Sept. 25. The inevitable buy-in from Vols fans would get more butts in the seats against Kentucky, South Carolina and Ole Miss, among other contests. Picking up 3 more wins in their remaining 9 contests certainly would be possible if not probable. Remember, 5 of those games will be at home.

Earning a bowl game berth would give Heupel and his staff a few more weeks of practice, which could be invaluable for such a young team. The exposure from playing in a bowl game might also assist with recruiting. It would be a sign that the program is moving in the right direction and that can’t hurt when it comes to bringing more talent to Knoxville. The Tennessee fan base wouldn’t be fully invested in basketball season just yet, because there would be one more football game left. They’d flock to Memphis or Jacksonville or wherever the Vols would play in the postseason.

Beat Pitt, and you should be busy in December.

But there’s a flip side to coin. If the Vols lose to Pittsburgh, what does that do to the optimism of Tennessee fans? An announced crowd of 84,314 showed up on a weeknight for the opener against Bowling Green. I’d venture that you’ll have at least 90,000 in the stands to see the Panthers. Tennessee fans have proven time and time again that they will support their team, especially at the start of a new coach’s tenure. But they want to see progress.

In the opener against Bowling Green, those fans saw what a Josh Heupel-led offense can accomplish. The pace kept the Falcons defense on their heels in the first quarter. They were barely able to keep up, and Tennessee scored touchdowns on their first two drives.

But UT fans also saw what can happen when things don’t go according to plan. Tennessee’s offense went three and out in the second quarter; before and after that possession, Bowling Green hit field goals. The UT defense barely had enough time to catch their breath before they were forced to go back in the game. You can get away with it against the Falcons, who were so woeful offensively. You can’t get away with that against SEC opponents.

Tennessee is already up against it in some spots defensively when it comes to depth. Pittsburgh will be the first challenge of Heupel’s system against a good opponent. If the Vols can’t handle the pressure against Pitt, how ugly might it get against Florida, Alabama or Georgia?

The Pitt game will be a good litmus test for Heupel and the current state of Tennessee’s football program.

Obviously the second game of a coaches tenure can’t be considered a must win.

Let’s just say life will be much more pleasant for Heupel if Tennessee can take care of business against Pittsburgh.