So the Vol offense wasn't at their best on a sleepy Saturday in Neyland against North Texas. The only way you get remembered for what you did against the 1-9 teams of the world is to lose, and the Vols didn't do that. And the larger-than-necessary associations we want to make between this game and others we've seen this year will be dwarfed in six days by the opportunity now in front of Tennessee.
Three weeks ago after going toe-to-toe in Tuscaloosa we wanted to believe Tennessee was a championship contender in disguise and in training. The Vols had lost a double overtime game and three others by ten combined points to four good teams. And in mid-October the distance between the good teams in Tennessee's first half of the season and what remained in the final five games seemed laughable. When the Vols trounced Kentucky 52-21 the following week it only reinforced the narrative.
The Vols haven't played their best football the last two weeks, though they did earn two more wins over South Carolina and North Texas. But two other things have happened in the space between.
First, Tennessee has gone from a team with four losses to good teams to a team with three losses to really, really good teams and a fourth to a team that's 5-1 in their last six, and the one loss coming to one of those really, really good teams. Last night Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma all won on the road at Top 20 teams by double digits. Today the three really, really good teams are ranked third, seventh, and eighth in the AP Poll. If the Vols make a stop on 4th and 14, they're in the driver's seat for Atlanta. If the Vols do that and hang on to a 17-0 lead against Oklahoma, they're in the back end of the playoff conversation.
We didn't, and that's why we're still a contender in training even if the disguise is non-existent by the end of the year. Much of the word count the last two weeks has gone to who the Vols would face in their bowl game, and how it might be a chance for the meaningful victory seemingly unavailable in November.
But much has changed in the last week at Missouri.
Tennessee will be the least interesting and least important part of the story in the first game on campus since the protests and the last game on campus for Gary Pinkel. The Tigers not only played their best game since Drew Lock became the quarterback in a win over BYU, a cauldron of emotion will be waiting in Columbia and wearing black and gold. If Tennessee is a contender in disguise, this is a big game in disguise.
And while the challenge should be greater than we anticipated, a team in training will take the reps.
If the Vols want to be a team that is taken seriously, by itself and others, for championships next year, going on the road and winning this game in this environment would be a huge step. Lessons that need to be learned about maturity, businesslike attitudes and winning in hostile environments by a team that will return most of its starters can be learned on Saturday in Columbia instead of next year with little experience to fall back on. It is a chance for Butch Jones and this team not just to prove what they are, but what they are becoming.
Beyond the emotion and the jump-started offense, Missouri will bring the fourth best defense in the nation in yards per play allowed. The Tigers are one of the few teams Josh Dobbs has seen twice, and the Vols have struggled offensively against Missouri's defense both times. He threw a pair of interceptions in his first career start in 2013 and the Vols didn't find the end zone, and last year the Tigers kept everything in front of them in holding him to 5.3 yards per attempt with pressure limiting him to 17 carries for 13 yards.
Tennessee has more weapons around Dobbs this time, but the Vols are beat up on the offensive line. There are a lot of things trending in Missouri's direction in this one, even if the Vols opened as a nine point favorite. But if Tennessee is still the team it wants to be and the team we believe they can be, this is an enormous opportunity to show it by winning this game in this environment. We may not have seen it coming, but another big game has suddenly appeared on Tennessee's schedule.