A significant percentage of Tennessee fans have, at one point or another, used some form of the phrase "We could go 1-11, but as long as the one is Alabama, I'll be happy." It's a joke, of course...but there's a degree of truth in there this year.
I think we all agree 6-6 is the goal, but consider this scenario:
Tennessee's schedule is so front-loaded that the Vols will surely be underdogs in five of their first seven games. Those five opponents are all ranked in the preseason coaches' poll. So the most probable outcome is Tennessee sitting at 2-5 after the Alabama game. But the schedule from there does get easier, and while games against South Carolina and Ole Miss are by no means guaranteed victories, it's also a very possible outcome that Tennessee could start 2-5 but finish with five straight wins. If Derek Dooley wants to build momentum for the future, the best chance to do that isn't September, but November, where the Vols could make a real run. A 7-5 team that won its bowl game could go into 2011 on a six game winning streak.
It would be an odd experience if that happened, where our biggest win of the year was your choice of Carolina or the Rebels, and we played a lower tier team in a lower tier bowl, but still built real momentum. None of those wins would feel as good as beating Georgia 45-19 last year did, but it would still be a big deal for the program.
So would you rather have that scenario, where a rough September and October lead to hope for the future in November...or would you rather see the Vols go 6-6, lose to both South Carolina and Ole Miss...but score a huge, memorable upset in the first seven games?
Consider the value of an upset to a first year coach. Most recent example of a new coach coming in and scoring one right away? It happened against us:
Tonight is just a start. We are experiencing the kind of high we haven't experienced since 13-9. We know there are tough times ahead. We are going to experience our share of adversity. It is going to happen.
But after what we have seen tonight ... nothing will matter. We are going to rock and roll through rest of this season and rest of CRN's career in Westwood.
UCLA's 2008 win over The Clawfense gave way to a 4-8 season, and UCLA's 2009 win over Lane Kiffin gave way to a 6-6 season and a win over Temple in the EagleBank Bowl. One win doesn't mean you're back. But one win can provide precious fuel for hope.
We know about this from the other side too. It wasn't even so much that beating Georgia last year was an upset, it was how we did it:
Any win would've been huge today. But the how of it all, in a 45-19 game that could've/should've been 45-3 if you remove special teams from the equation, gives Kiffin his big first win, and gives him something to hang his hat on. Now we've seen it, now we know for sure that this can work - players, fans, everyone. That's not to say that Kiffin is going to have success here forever, but when you win like that in your first year against one of your biggest rivals, you earn a whole lot of trust. Tennessee needed to win one of these big SEC games in the worst way. And turns out, we won in the very best way.
Playing Florida and Alabama close gave us pieces of hope...but beating Georgia, and beating them the way good Tennessee teams do, was the one that brought the puzzle together. That win ignited a hope that carried us through the performance at Ole Miss, through the bowl game, and forward into recruiting up until the night Kiffin left. 7-5 on a roll at the end of the season would create one kind of momentum...but a win over any of those five teams in the first half of the season would be much more potent.
Of course, there are a million different scenarios for this season, and any number of ways the Vols can get to 6-6, 7-5, or whatever. If the Vols do in fact start 2-5, then we'll get into what kind of coaching job Dooley will have to do to not lose his team and give Tennessee a chance to still build momentum in late October.
But regardless of which scenario you like...where are the Vols most likely to find an upset in the first half of the season?