The Vols cruised to a sleepy 24-0 win against North Texas Saturday in a game where Tennessee struggled to separate but was never really threatened. When you're facing off against one of the worst teams in FBS, it's hard to learn much, but the Trending Report still has a job to do, so we'll see what we can learn this week about the current state of the Vols.
- Bowl-eligibility (with time to spare). As frustrating as this week and this season have been at times, the fact remains that Tennessee has clinched bowl eligibility before the season's final game for the first time this decade. The last time the Vols hit six wins this early in the season was in 2007, when a 59-7 win over Louisiana-Lafayette put Tennessee at 6-3 with three games remaining.
- Opportunity. Barring a marquee bowl matchup, there are no remaining opportunities for the Vols to get a signature win. No matter how competitive Missouri and Vanderbilt look, they remain a combined 3-11 in SEC play, and that's just not moving the needle the way wins against Florida, Oklahoma, or Alabama would've, or even the way the win over Georgia did. But the Vols still have a chance to significantly impact the story of the 2015 season. Right now, Tennessee has three one-score losses to top ten teams and one one-score loss to a team with two straight road wins over ranked opponents. But on the other side of the coin, the Vols have just a one-score win over a team that finished 1-7 in conference play, and their sole double-digit conference win came against a team that's arguably playing worse than anyone else in the league.
They are now faced with two games against bottom-tier SEC teams who have strong defenses and who have been competitive against solid teams, with Missouri coming off a win against BYU and Vanderbilt taking Florida to the wire before beating Kentucky. If Tennessee loses either (or both), their 2015 story is one of a below average SEC team that managed to ride hot starts to competitive losses against the upper half of the conference and got one emotional but narrow home win over a mid-tier team. If the Vols struggle offensively but win a pair of narrow contests, they look like a mid-tier SEC team that could scare the elite but also wasn't far away from the bottom-feeders. But if Tennessee can win convincingly against Missouri and Vanderbilt, their 2015 story is the one Vols fans want to believe it is: that of a team that clearly belongs among the favorites in the SEC East and that needs only to learn to close in order to take the crown in 2016.
The first of the finishing doublet comes Saturday in Columbia, Missouri. The Vols are facing a Missouri team that's beaten them three seasons in a row and will be playing in longtime coach Gary Pinkel's final home game. Tennessee is favored by nine, and the line is a good benchmark for the Vols' performance. A comfortable win, even if not a dominating one, would show either that Tennessee's banged up offense was able to perform against a strong defense or that the Vols' defense was able to dominate as they should against a struggling offense. 21-10 or 27-17 on the road against a well-coached, fired-up team with a strong defense is enough to get the Vols back on the path to separation. Duplicating Mississippi State's 31-13 win in Columbia is even better. On the other hand, a one-score game after uninspiring performances against South Carolina and North Texas makes it harder to see the Vols as more than average. To be clear, the first priority, as always, is to win. But if Tennessee wants the offseason narratives to be "team on the rise" and "on the verge of breaking out" and not "stars in February, mediocre in the fall," they need to put distance between themselves and their remaining opponents. And now is the time to start.
- Energy. It's unfair to to single out any one player or unit, because the entire team was uninspired. Josh Dobbs had one of his worst performances of the season. The offensive line allowed two sacks and a blocked punt and paved the way for just 4.9 yards per carry against a defense that had given up 7+ YPC against Western Kentucky, Portland State, and Southern Mississippi. The defense was better, keeping everything in front of them and waiting for North Texas to make drive-killing mistakes. But, while the Mean Green obliged, the final totals of 199 yards and 0 points for North Texas flattered the men in orange--North Texas missed several opportunities granted them by the UT defense and was still able to come very near their season average 36% offensive success rate, an average compiled against a schedule decidedly below SEC standards. Dobbs and the offensive line should be under the most powerful microscope moving forward, but the whole team will need to be more focused if the Vols are to succeed against Missouri and Vanderbilt.
- The grass. When you've gotten to the point where a Conference USA team is trolling you over the quality of your field, you have a problem. The playing surface at Neyland has been in bad shape the last two weeks, and that just makes for sloppy football. There are plenty of other teams in the Vols' general geographic region--Virginia and Virginia Tech come to mind, as well as the NFL's Titans and Redskins--that use natural grass, and there's no reason the state of Shields-Watkins Field should be this poor.