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Tennessee vs Arkansas Preview: The Way Forward

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Two heartbreaking losses have colored the season thus far, but two home wins could change the entire story.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

In nine days, Tennessee could be in the driver's seat in the SEC East.

Welcome back to the idea that this season matters.

Here's the path.  It's not even the only one, just the quickest one.

  • October 4:  Alabama beats Georgia (3:30 CBS) The first piece may look like only insurance from here, but with the Vols already a game down in the loss column, Tennessee could use Georgia dropping an additional game besides the one we'll get to in a couple bullet points.  And if you're looking for Georgia to drop an additional game, this one is by far the most likely.  Coming into this season it looked like the Vols and Dawgs would both have stern tests from the SEC West, but with both Auburn and Arkansas struggling the Tide are the only common thread.  Bama beating Georgia means the Vols could survive a loss to Alabama later this month and stay in the driver's seat if the rest of this holds form.
  • October 4:  Ole Miss beats Florida (7:00 ESPN) It's in The Swamp, but the Rebels are a touchdown favorite and have looked like one of the best teams in college football, one sleepwalking session removed against Vanderbilt.  If we thought Tennessee had a talent advantage on these Gators, the Rebels are significantly better.
  • October 4:  Tennessee beats Arkansas (7:00 ESPN2) There has been discussion this week on what exactly a win on Saturday would do for this team, this season, or Butch Jones.  In part beating Arkansas would be an accomplishment in the sense of where Tennessee has been; the Vols haven't beaten an SEC team that wasn't Kentucky, South Carolina, or Vanderbilt since taking down Ole Miss in 2010.  But more than that, this game is a bridge to where the Vols want to go.  Lose, and we get to spend another week talking about Butch Jones and Mike DeBord.  Win, and we get to talk about the SEC East.  Which one would you prefer?
  • October 11:  Tennessee beats Georgia (3:30 CBS) Perhaps the biggest ask on the list, but a considerably smaller ask than it's been against Georgia the last three years when the Vols have gone to the wire.  We'll cross this bridge when we come to it.
  • October 11:  Missouri beats Florida (7:30 SEC Network) In Columbia.  You don't think Florida will lose to Missouri?  Fine.  How about at LSU the next week?  Or the Cocktail Party two weeks later?  Like I said, this is just the quickest way to get back in front.
In nine days, the entire conversation can be different.  And it won't take any two possession underdogs getting it done.  But the most important thing it will take is Tennessee being the team it's been for around 80% of its snaps this season and learning how not to be the team it's been for the other 20%.

When Tennessee stunned South Carolina last year, I wrote that most of the things that were true about Tennessee's future would have been true regardless of outcome.  Truth is so much clearer in victory, and easily disguised in defeat.

The truth behind the heartbreaking losses with this Tennessee team isn't that they're one play away.  It's better than that.  Some will say, "Do you really think Tennessee is going to beat Arkansas and Georgia?"  I would say I absolutely think Tennessee is good enough to do it.  Can the Vols make the necessary adjustments with the game on the line?  That's why we're paying these guys the big bucks.

We've been waiting seven years to get back to meaningful football.  No matter how devastating these two losses have been, don't let it keep you from recognizing how much this week matters.  Not just for Butch Jones and mood rings and all that, but for this season, right now.  And don't let it keep you from recognizing this team is good enough to win games like this, right now.

Where will Tennessee's season be headed late Saturday night?