Through the first seven games of the 2015 season, the Tennessee Volunteers have earned a disappointing 3-4 record. All four of Tennessee's losses have been by a combined 17 points, leading to frustration from the fan base. There were high aspirations for the Vols before the season began, and thus far the team hasn't lived up to those hopes.
Most fans and analysts alike expected the Vols to be 5-2 at the absolute worst at this point, but fourth quarter collapses to Oklahoma and Florida led to surprising losses, and a lackluster performance against Arkansas led to the third loss of the season. A come-from-behind win against a ranked Georgia squad the following week helped raise the spirits of Vol fans and give hope that Tennessee had turned a corner on the season. And while Tennessee failed to seal the deal against No. 8 Alabama last weekend, there was plenty of progress to be seen on the field in the loss, the only loss the Vols have suffered to a clearly more talented team all season.
But luckily for Tennessee, their season can be salvaged with five games remaining.
The Vols' 2015 season was extremely front-loaded, as the Vols faced three ranked opponents in their seven games, including a Florida team that ended up in the top 10 mere weeks after defeating the Vols. But there isn't a team left on Tennessee's schedule that is more than a game above .500, and all five of them have severe deficiencies on at least one side of the ball.
The combined record of Tennessee's first seven opponents as of this week is 38-13. Only one team (Arkansas) has a losing record, and no other team aside from the Razorbacks has more than two losses. But the record of Tennessee's remaining five opponents is 14-22. Three of the five teams the Vols will face to close out the season have losing records, including an 0-7 North Texas squad. Only Kentucky (4-3) and Missouri (4-4) are at or above the .500 mark.
Tennessee must take advantage of this drop-off in competition to keep their rebuilding efforts on track. Even though a good deal of fans and analysts were predicting the Vols to compete for the SEC East crown and finish with a 9-3 or 10-2 record, most still had Tennessee ending up with an 8-4 mark by the end of the regular season. If the Vols can win their final five games, then they will earn that 8-4 record most expected at the beginning of the year.
And the Vols are used to having strong finishes after facing a tough first half of the season.
Last year, the Vols fell to 3-5 after a 34-20 loss to Alabama. But the 2014 Vols were able to go 3-1 in the final four games of the regular season to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. That 2010 team had a strong finish to their season as well, winning the last four games of the year after a 2-6 start. In fact, from 2002-10, the Vols went 33-13 in games played starting in the last weekend of October through the month of November, including two seasons where the Vols didn't lose a single game in that span. Tennessee needs to duplicate the results of the 2003 and 2007 seasons where they didn't lose a game in the final stretch in order to save an otherwise disappointing year.
One way the Vols can win their final five games of 2015 is by doing what they've done best all season: run the ball. Tennessee has the third-best rushing attack in the SEC, averaging 209.1 yards a contest. And that's with the Vols facing three of the top five run defenses in the conference to start the year (Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida). The remaining teams on Tennessee's schedule don't pose as much of a threat defensively, however.
Tennessee's last five opponents are giving up an average of 186.9 yards per game on the ground. This includes South Carolina and North Texas, two teams outside the top 100 teams in terms of run defense and who are giving up over 200 yards a game on the ground. The five teams have combined to allow 51 rushing touchdowns on the year so far, including 23 by North Texas alone. And while Vanderbilt and Missouri have respectable run defenses, neither team has faced a healthy rushing attack as potent as Tennessee's this season.
Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs have to be licking their chops looking at Tennessee's remaining opponents.
The Vols have to win out in order to save their 2015 season. If Tennessee can defeat their final five opponents in the regular season and finish 8-4, then fans, recruits, and media alike will be able to see definitive proof of progress this year. But if the Vols lose any of these games, fans will be angrier than they have at any point this season.
Tennessee can still salvage their season. They've done it in the past, and this team is talented enough to do it this year. As long as the Vols don't stray from what's worked for them so far, 2015 can still be a success.