By kickoff on Saturday, the Vols could be several miles ahead in the SEC East race.
Florida hosts LSU at noon on ESPN. Maybe Luke Del Rio is back, maybe he’s not. Maybe Ed Orgeron’s voodoo will conjure up all that offense again, maybe not. But if the Tigers find a way to win - and they’re the early favorite at -2.5 - every other team in the SEC East will have at least two losses. And the Vols already own the tiebreakers on Florida and Georgia. If LSU beats Florida, it means the Vols could lose to both Texas A&M and Alabama, and still go into their bye week knowing they control their own destiny in the final five games of the season against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt (and Tennessee Tech, of course). An LSU win means this is the worst case scenario for Tennessee.
The best case scenario, of course, is winning and more of it. From our perspective coming into the season Florida was the most important win to get this year, followed by Georgia for East purposes. From a national perspective, #8 Texas A&M is now Tennessee’s most important game, to be immediately overridden by #1 Alabama. And what the Vols do the next two weeks will determine how long they stay in the national perspective.
Tennessee has already put itself in position to achieve its reasonable goals this season. The Vols beat Florida and beat Georgia, meaning they should win the SEC East. The next two weeks will help decide what other goals are on the table this year.
One of three things is going to happen in the next two weeks:
- The Vols go 0-2. With a little help from our friends at LSU, they could still be in the driver’s seat to Atlanta. If Orgeron isn’t feeling so generous, there are still opportunities for Florida to lose (vs Missouri, Georgia in Jacksonville, at Arkansas, vs South Carolina). Tennessee spends the second half of its season trying to stay on track for the Georgia Dome and win the SEC East for the first time since 2007.
- The Vols go 1-1. Tennessee controls its own destiny in the SEC East and will really have it locked down if LSU beats Florida. The Vols spend the second half of the season trying to stay on track for the Georgia Dome while pulling for less than four undefeated teams in college football, giving themselves an opportunity to win in Atlanta to sneak into the College Football Playoff as a 12-1 SEC Champion.
- The Vols go 2-0. We spend the bye week talking about the National Championship.
Again, we’ve reached a point where the worst case scenario still leaves Tennessee’s most reasonable goals for 2016 on the table, and the best case scenario leaves everything on the table. On the one hand you don’t want to get greedy. On the other hand, after last week some of us are using destiny and 1998 in sentences with present tense verbs.
The Aggies were always the wild card in this schedule. They’ve been in the league five years now - consider our four overtime epic basketball game with them was four seasons and three head coaches ago - but as this is the first time we’ve played them in an SEC football game it almost felt like a big non-conference showdown coming in. But you weren’t sure just how big it would be because they had UCLA, Auburn, and Arkansas before us. But just like the Vols handled Virginia Tech, Florida, and Georgia, the Aggies have arrived without a blemish. That’s how a game neither of us really knew what to make of in August draws College GameDay in October.
We shouldn’t be surprised: aside from playing Alabama every year, Tennessee just finds a way to draw one of the other best teams from the SEC West.
- 2011: #2 LSU, #5 Arkansas (final AP rankings)
- 2012: Mississippi State, ranked 15th the week of the game in the midst of their best start since 1999
- 2013: Eventual #2 Auburn
- 2014: Ole Miss, ranked 3rd the week of the game, their highest ranking in 50+ years
- 2015: (Okay, so Arkansas wasn’t much to look at in the standings when we played them, but outside of Alabama they may have been the worst match-up for Team 119).
I don’t know about Tennessee’s defense at full strength, but as it stands right now guess who might be the worst non-Alabama match-up for Tennessee’s existing defense in the SEC West? And no matter what you think about that, the Aggies are the only undefeated and highest ranked SEC West team outside Tuscaloosa. They’re a tough match-up for anybody at this point.
It’s a huge challenge and an even bigger opportunity. And that’s exactly what both of these teams have earned.
It’ll be the first Top 10 showdown for the Vols since 2005. We’ve been knocking out a lot of things from that era recently. Tennessee has lived but lived dangerously by choice and circumstance, and still may not be able to correct the latter this week via Jalen Reeves-Maybin or Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols’ 2016 season will continue to live beyond these next two weeks. It’s simply a question of how well we’re going to live, and how big we can dream.
I keep pinching myself, but so far, so good.