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What would've been a sobering projection for the 2010 season took an even more depressing turn on Friday. Even making a projection now is incomplete guesswork, moreso than usual, because as of this morning we still don't know how long Greg King and Marlon Walls will be suspended, nor do we know if any further suspensions are coming after the Bar Knoxville incident.
But now less than eight weeks away from the real thing and four days removed from our latest black eye, where are we? What do we expect to see from the Vols this fall?
"Expect" is the key word. This isn't what we hope for (and 54 days away I feel confident I can still be rational about this team; there's no guarantee of that once the calendar hits August), and this isn't even how we would define success - plain and simple, how do you think we'll finish this year?
We've never seen the Music City Bowl, and haven't seen the Liberty since 1986. Both look pretty good to me from here.
Really, it's a dangerous and unfair thing to judge the success of your season on the bowl game, both in destination and result. Sometimes the politics work against you (I still haven't eaten at Outback Steakhouse this year...which has nothing to do with the fact that there's not one within 40 miles of me...), and sometimes a loss in the bowl game puts an unfair aftertaste on a solid main course (see 2003 for an example of both in the same year).
In the SEC, it's especially unique: we now have four January 1 bowl tie-ins, plus the most prestigious non-January bowl in Atlanta. So if the league sends two teams to the BCS again this year - which seems a little less certain than last time around, but I still wouldn't bet against it - that means the seventh best team in the league plays in the January 1 Gator Bowl.
Will Tennessee be one of those seven teams (and will the postseason politics allow them their proper place this time)?
The next two teams play in the state of Tennessee, in either Nashville or Memphis. Those two would obviously love to have the Vols, we've just never been available...but it just feels like this is going to be the year we keep it in-state for the holidays.
To get there, the Vols need six wins.
I've said this before, and I'll continue to stand by it: Tennessee, down and depleted though we may be, is vastly superior to Tennessee-Martin, UAB, Tiger High, and Vanderbilt. There is no excuse to lose any of those four games.
Of the remaining eight games, Tennessee will be the underdog in at least five. If you're looking for wins, history says you start with Kentucky, and you can count me on board with the "I'll believe it when I see it" train of thought. That's five.
So to get bowl eligible, barring colossal upset or UK making history, the Vols need one - ONE - win out of Oregon, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Ole Miss.
Just two years ago, we had an o-fer in the big games; our biggest win in 2008 was your choice of Mississippi State or Kentucky. So no one should be shocked if it happens again, and the Vols miss out on the postseason for the third time in six years.
I think Tennessee has just enough of everything - talent, coaching, "nobodybelievedinus", etc - to feel it's fair to expect Tennessee to get one of those games, and thus get bowl eligible.
Getting two of those games might be greedy. And while I will still submit that the best case scenario for this team is 9-3 - and that's a scenario that involves everything, and I mean everything, going right - I think 6-6 is the most reasonable expectation.
Outside the numbers, I think everyone, from Dooley to the fans, understands that there are other things we want to see. Progress, for one: is this team better in November than it is in September? Progress leads to hope for the future. And those little things - playing hard, playing smart, coaching well, having heart, signs of life - will mean even more this year. Even if they don't always win, I expect Tennessee to compete more often than not. And as such, I expect us to win enough games to make the postseason.
It's interesting to work with that expectation and then look at the schedule...because Ole Miss could then become our most important game of the year.
If the Vols don't pull off an upset in September or October, and if we lose at South Carolina on October 30, then we could be 3-6 heading into the Ole Miss game - not at all a crazy projection. The Rebels would then become the gateway game: win, and now all you have to do is beat your old friends Vandy and Kentucky, and you're bowling. But lose, and what do you have left to play for? If the Vols do struggle to a 3-6 start, giving everything that these players have been through...will they have enough left in the tank to finish strong? No matter how bad the start, Tennessee could still reasonably finish the year with four straight wins and a bowl game...which would be big momentum for the future. Or it could all fall apart, and we end with the worst year in school history (eight losses).
So our window goes from those two numbers: 4-8 with no upsets, to a 9-3 uprising. I think Tennessee goes 6-6, and plays either Houston in the Liberty Bowl (...not sure we want this, especially with an additional question mark in the secondary now) or the #6 ACC team in the Music City Bowl.
And look...these are not bowl games we want to visit every year, or even every decade. But the Vols would draw in either place...and if Dooley is building from the ground up, your home state isn't a bad place to start.