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Tennessee Football: Hey, Remember Us?

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Are the Vols a good team now? Perhaps they have been all year.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

You know that place between not good enough to be in play for championships and not bad enough to have our coach on the hot seat?  That's where Tennessee has been for the last month or more from a national perspective.  The Vols have been largely ignored in the general college football conversation, which I suppose happens to most teams headed toward 8-4.

But the Vols are not most 8-4 teams.

Tennessee ranks 11th in ESPN's Football Power Index, the third best team in the SEC.  That's also where you'll find the Vols in point differential in conference play, trailing only the two teams who will play in Atlanta at +6.0.  Third Down For What is fifth in the nation, and the Vols are 25th on the offensive side of third down conversions.

Look, nothing that happened to any of the other SEC East teams Saturday was particularly heartwarming (with mild apologies to Kentucky's 58-10 win over Charlotte).  Tennessee was busy putting 248 yards on one of the best run defenses in the nation, but as that defense belonged to Missouri it's not moving the needle.

This is what happens when your best arguments are close losses, of which Tennessee now has three against Top 10 teams.  The most frustrating detail remains the most noteworthy point:  the Vols had fourth quarter leads on all three.  Tennessee hasn't been unlucky, self-inflicting some wounds and watching Heisman names like Baker Mayfield and Derrick Henry inflict others late in the game.  But the Vols also weren't lucky to be there with any of those teams.

We've been saying for much of this year the Vols were a good team in disguise.  Here at the end of the regular season the disguise is mostly gone, but the nature of Tennessee's schedule has left few eyes to see them as they actually are.  The Vols are one of just 11 power conference teams to have a 4+ game winning streak.  The other 10 are all ranked in the Top 18.  Tennessee is receiving two votes.

As the Vols continue to progress, the votes will come.  If the Vols make it five straight by beating Vandy the narrative itself will likely turn on the who and then the what of Tennessee's bowl game; there's a big difference between nine wins and five losses, and we've already seen the way a bowl victory can color the entire off-season conversation.

Perhaps the Vols will get a January 1 spotlight or a big name opponent to re-enter the conversation.  Either way, the ceiling of Tennessee's 2015 season collapsed months ago.  But the foundation, built on all those bricks, continues to grow.  And the ceiling of its next team has a chance to restore the program itself, bringing the Vols back to the national conversation far beyond September.

Whether it comes in January via the bowl game or in the summer months when the Vols are picked to do even bigger things with 18 returning starters, the truth remains the same:  Tennessee is a good football team.  Has been all year.

And Tennessee is getting better.