I saw something that looked a bit strange when watching the Georgia-Auburn game on Saturday. It was the SEC standings.

I had to pause my DVR for a moment to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. I even checked this morning on my computer to make sure I wasn’t dozing off and dreamed up an image that couldn’t be true. Nope, I remembered correctly.

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Tennessee is in third place in the SEC East and it’s mid November. Yes, I said it. Read it again. Tennessee is in third place in the SEC East and it’s mid November. That’s pretty unreal considering the mass (and understandable) chaos that reigned when the Vols lost their season opener to Georgia State. Here’s what is even more bizarre, the Vols will likely finish in third place. More on that later.

Someone at the gym (Yes, I go to the gym) recently said that he might need some sunscreen for this year’s bowl trip. Yes, this person is a UT fan but he’s a rational one — they actually exist. Could the Vols go bowling in Florida instead of Nashville or Memphis? Absolutely. If they win out, they probably will.

I’d like to tell you that I reached out to a handful of my bowl committee sources to predict where the Vols would go to a bowl game if they won out and finished the season 7-5. I used to do that this time of year. However, that’s not possible anymore. The SEC makes those travel destinations. Bowl committees have all the power of a meter maid nowadays. I’m not even sure why bowl committees still exist, but that’s a topic for another column.

If the Vols can finish off their final two opponents, Missouri and Vanderbilt, then they have a great chance to land in a Florida bowl. Why? Because the SEC would love a resurgent team that would buy up its bowl ticket allotment and then some. For once, UT’s image is working in its favor.

Watching SEC football on Saturday and considering what has happened recently had to have UT fans feeling optimistic. I didn’t see a team on Saturday that the Vols couldn’t compete with if they were on the schedule tomorrow. Please note — I didn’t say Tennessee would absolutely beat any of the best teams in the SEC. However, Tennessee can compete. Let’s look at the SEC’s elite.

Georgia, which won the SEC East on Saturday, beat the Vols thoroughly earlier this season. However, if that game were replayed now, I doubt UT would lose by 29 points as it did in October. How about Alabama? The Vols already proved they could hang with the Tide despite the final score in that game.

Again, no one is saying that the Vols are going to run the table next season and win the SEC, but simply competing against the conference’s elite teams is considerable progress and an important first step.

The big picture of the SEC seems much more hospitable to the Vols than it did just a year ago. Georgia is good, no doubt, but is coach Kirby Smart the chosen one that he was once deemed? After a loss against South Carolina and a close call on Saturday against Auburn, I’d say not. Alabama also has a chink in its once invincible armor. The new transfer rules won’t allow Bama to stockpile depth. Injuries have made the Crimson Tide just great instead of ridiculously great. LSU proved that.

The Vols are 5-5 and could finish 7-5. Had I told any realistic fan in July that UT would finish the 2019 season with 7 wins, they would have taken that. Now, it could actually happen despite that season-opening stumble. On Saturday the Vols face a Missouri team that has lost 4 straight. Then, UT has Vanderbilt which has also fallen on hard times with 3 straight losses. So, most likely, the Vols will (and should) finish the season 7-5. Any Tennessee fan that would have turned that down in during the summer is simply unrealistic.

I know it’s hard not to re-visit the beginning of the season — so I’ll do so. Imagine if the Vols had defeated Georgia State and BYU, which they should have. UT would be one of the most fascinating stories in college football and would be staring at a 9-win season.

Alas, that wasn’t the case. However, winning 7 games this season in the fashion that UT has done so is mightily impressive. The Vols have stood toe-to-toe with their SEC opponents. That’s worth more than a win over Georgia State.

Get your sunscreen ready.