The Tennessee Volunteers head into a much-needed bye week after a rocky start to the 2018 football season. At 2-3 overall, their bowl game chances are hanging in the balance as the home stretch to the season approaches.
Let’s look at how we arrived at where we currently are:
In the first game of the season, the Vols were throttled in Charlotte, NC by the West Virginia Mountaineers. The final score was 40-14 in favor of WVU and much of the Volunteer faithful were let down and upset with the loss. Although all things considered, West Virginia is absolutely the real deal. As I am writing this, West Virginia is standing tall with a 4-0 record. They have handled the other two power five conference opponents on their slate in Kansas State and Texas Tech. The Mountaineers drubbed KSU and held on versus a ranked Tech Squad after building a large early lead. WVU’s Will Grier is up among the likes of Tua Tagavailoa from Alabama as the best quarterbacks UT will see all season long.
In week two, Tennessee held their home opener against the cupcake that is the ETSU Bucs. The Vols handled their business 59-3, but there were some glaring issues. The offensive line did not line up and dominate the way I, and many others, thought they would. The Bucs d-line is significantly undersized when compared to the Tennessee front. I thought Tennessee would manhandle them and they did not.
Then, the Vols got the job done versus UTEP. But let’s not ignore what happened in this one: Turnovers, penalties, and turnovers. The final score was 24-0 but it should have been even more lopsided. I mean, UT rushed for 345 yards and couldn’t put up more than 24?!
And in week three came the day that Volunteer fans circle on their calendars every year. Big, bad Florida came to town. Fans were chomping at the bit and claiming this to be the game where Jeremy Pruitt will get his first signature victory. Yeah… not so much. Florida took it to Tennessee early and often, winning 47-21. This should have been seen as a huge reality check. The Vols simply do not have the Jimmies and Joes. At least, not yet. The story of the game was a familiar one: Turnovers, turnovers and more turnovers. Tennessee gave away the ball SIX times. Six! Nobody is winning with a careless performance like that.
Needless to say, there were minimal expectations as the Vols rolled into Athens, GA to face the loaded Georgia Bulldogs last week. The betting line was north of 30 points in favor of the ‘Dogs. And despite losing 38-12 (the third 26-point loss of the season for UT, strangely enough), Tennessee showed a lot of moxie and grit. They were clearly outmanned but battled back. I had no real bones to pick with the overall effort besides maybe Jeremy Pruitt electing to go for the two two-point conversions, more specifically the second one.
The Vols could have easily just rolled over and gotten destroyed but that did not occur. They battled hard and hung in there.
Now the looming question is this: What can Tennessee accomplish during the remainder of this season? Next up after the merciful bye week, the Vols travel to the Plains to take on Auburn. The Tigers have flashed moments of greatness but have also displayed some major vulnerabilities. They defeated a stingy, talented Washington team in their season opener. They then proceeded to lose a last second heartbreaker against LSU and sleepwalk through the Southern Miss game.
The contest will be a noon eastern time kickoff and that factor mixed with a few others could really set up well for Tennessee. For the Vols to get the W they will need to put forth the effort they had versus Georgia and more. On top of that, they will need for Auburn to sleepwalk and play down to the level of their competition. Auburn is an enigma in that they could come out roaring like the ’85 Bears or they could play some very sloppy ball. Luckily for UT, they’ve looked sloppy more often than they’ve looked sharp so far this year.
And following the road trip to Auburn, it’s time for the all-powerful Crimson Tide. This one could get ugly, quick. Like, really quick. Alabama should be able to name their score and put the reserves in down the stretch.
Believe it or not, it looks like the South Carolina game in Columbia is somewhat winnable. Sure, they possess some talent but SC has not been particularly impressive and this is a game where I would not be surprised if UT walks away with a narrow victory.
Then comes Charlotte at home. This is the one remaining game you should be able to chalk up as a victory. Turn the page, next chapter.
The Kentucky Wildcats follow and, as crazy as it might sound, I think the Cats are for real and that the Vols could run into a buzzsaw here. Quarterback Terry Wilson can shred you with his arm and his legs, Benny Snell Jr. is a stud at the halfback spot, and their defense is stout. UK is currently 5-0 overall and 3-0 in conference play and they’ve won every game on their schedule by double-digits, including a 21-point smackdown of a ranked Mississippi State team. If the Vols aren’t prepared for the Cats, things could quickly go awry.
The Mizzou game could also be a long one for Tennessee if the Vols don’t bring their A game. The Tigers boast an elite passing attack with Drew Lock having real NFL potential at quarterback. Tennessee should be able to move the ball and score on the Tigers, but can they keep up with the potent Mizzou offense? I’m not so sure.
Outside of Charlotte, the most winnable remaining game on the schedule is the Vanderbilt contest. The game will be at West End inside Vanderbilt Stadium. I expect more orange in the house than black and gold and Tennessee might actually be the superior team. Vanderbilt is certainly not a world beater as they showed in their embarrassingly close fight with Tennessee State this past weekend.
More than anything, I am looking for progress and strides to be made by Jeremy Pruitt’s team over the course of the remainder of the season. I want to see sustained maximum effort and more scratching and clawing like we witnessed against UGA. Sure, the Vols are likely to lose to the likes of Alabama and Auburn, but as long as we don’t see the white flag raised at any point, I think it’s safe to assume things are moving in the right direction for the Big Orange.