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Recalibrating expectations for the Vols in a world of uncertainty

Last week’s game and Monday’s news has Vols fans moving from an area of comfort to the edge of the precipice.

Tennessee v South Carolina
Butch Jones, thinking thoughts we can’t know.
Photo by Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

A gut punch from the South Carolina Gamecocks and a star starting running back voluntarily leaving the program with only four regular season games to go wreaks havoc on our weekly recalibrations.

Explanations are below, but here's the updated chart for this week:

5-30 SCALE Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 9 Week 10
6 Alabama Alabama Alabama
8 Alabama
9 Alabama
10 Georgia
11 Alabama
12 Georgia
13 Texas A&M Texas A&M
14 Georgia Florida (W; 38-28) Texas A&M
15 Texas A&M Texas A&M Georgia Texas A&M (L; 45-38 2OT) Alabama (L; 49-10) Kentucky
17 Florida Georgia (W; 34-31) Vanderbilt
18 Florida
19 Missouri Missouri Missouri Missouri
20 South Carolina Florida
21 Virginia Tech Virginia Tech (W; 45-24) South Carolina
22 Kentucky Missouri Kentucky
23 South Carolina Missouri Vanderbilt Kentucky Vanderbilt Missouri Vanderbilt
24 Kentucky Vanderbilt South Carolina South Carolina Kentucky Kentucky
25 Appalachian State (W; 20-13 (OT)) Missouri Vanderbilt Vanderbilt South Carolina Vanderbilt South Carolina (L; 24-21)
26 Vanderbilt Kentucky Kentucky South Carolina
27 Missouri Tennessee Tech
28 Ohio Ohio Ohio (W; 28-19)
29 Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech Tennessee Tech

Recalibrating the Vols after South Carolina

What is there to say about the South Carolina game that hasn't already been said? The team was not ready to play. The team is likely just not as good as we thought. There was or is a problem behind the curtain.

I will add just one thing about the slow starts, mostly because the opportunity may have just passed due to the narrative being consumed by even more important matters. When the Florida and Georgia games sort of codified the talking point that Tennessee 2016 was a team that would get behind early only to mount a comeback to win, everyone and their mother started making the same joke everytime the Vols got behind: "Tennessee's got them right where they want them." The joke was then usually followed by the same warning: "It's going to bite them at some point." The reasoning for this, of course, was that teams are flirting with disaster if they think they can just turn it on and off at will. But that's not actually the problem with developing an identity of always having to come from behind to win. The problem is that you create a scenario in which you just never get the signal to turn it on anyway. At first, a team starts the game in the OFF position and then has an "Oh, crap" moment at some point, at which time they flip to ON. But the moment you start saying, "We've got them right where we want them," or "Don't worry, we've done this before," then you have just deprived yourself of the "Oh, crap" trigger you need to flip the switch to ON.

I should have said that three weeks ago, and I'm only saying it now for future reference, because starting slow now appears to be something other than a problem to be improved by tweaking a few things here. It instead appears to be a symptom of something potentially much worse. Maybe the South Carolina game was the ultimate "Oh, crap" moment that will finally duct tape the switch to the ON position. But maybe it's instead the best evidence of something really wrong. Maybe Jalen Hurd is Bryce Brown. Or maybe he's Justin Wilcox. We don't know, but time will tell.

This week, though, we Vols fans are left with just a giant shrug emoticon. What should we expect the rest of the season? Who knows? At a minimum, the uncertainty introduced into the equation (and the light it shined on issues probably already there but mostly unnoticed) has moved the needle considerably from an area of comfort to the edge of the precipice. Will the team recover, or will it fling itself off the ledge?

Recalibrating the Vols based on new results from past opponents

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that Vols still hold the top spot on the list of college football's toughest schedules even after playing South Carolina, which is now 4-4. So there's that. Woo.

Appalachian State (6-2, 4-0 Sun Belt, NR)

  • W1: Lost to Tennessee in OT, 20-13.
  • W2: Beat Old Dominion, 31-7.
  • W3: Lost to #25 Miami, 45-10.
  • W4: Beat Akron, 45-38.
  • W5: Beat Georgia State, 17-3.
  • W6: Bye.
  • W7: Beat LA-Lafayette 24-0.
  • W8: Beat Idaho, 37-19.
  • W9: Beat Georgia Southern, 34-10.

Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-1 ACC, #23)

Ohio (6-3, 4-1 MAC, NR)

  • W1: Lost in 3OT to Texas State, 56-54.
  • W2: Beat Kansas, 37-21.
  • W3: Lost to Tennessee, 28-19.
  • W4: Beat Gardner-Webb, 37-21.
  • W5: Ohio (not Miami) beat Miami (Ohio), 17-7. :-)
  • W6: Beat Bowling Green, 30-24.
  • W7: Lost to E Michigan, 27-20.
  • W8: Beat Kent State, 14-10.
  • W9: Beat Toledo, 31-26.

Florida (6-1, 4-1 SEC, #10)

  • W1: Beat UMass, 24-7.
  • W2: Trounced Kentucky, 45-7.
  • W3: Beat North Texas, 32-0.
  • W4: Lost to Tennessee, 38-28.
  • W5: Beat Vanderbilt, 13-6.
  • W6: Postponed their game with LSU.
  • W7: Beat Missouri, 40-14.
  • W8: Bye.
  • W9: Beat Georgia, 24-10.

10/1/16: Georgia (4-4, 2-4 SEC)

  • W1: Beat North Carolina, 33-24.
  • W2: Barely beat Nicholls, 26-24.
  • W3: Came back late to squeak out a win against Missouri, 28-27.
  • W4: Lost to Ole Miss 45-14.
  • W5: Lost to Tennessee, 34-31.
  • W6: Beat South Carolina, 28-14.
  • W7: Lost to Vanderbilt, 17-16.
  • W8: Bye.
  • W9: Lost to Florida, 24-10.

10/8/16: Texas A&M (7-1, 4-1 SEC, #7)

  • W1: Beat #16 UCLA in OT, 31-24.
  • W2: Beat Prairie View A&M, 67-0.
  • W3: Beat Auburn, 29-16.
  • W4: Beat Arkansas, 45-24.
  • W5: Beat South Carolina, 24-13.
  • W6: Beat Tennessee, 45-38 in double overtime.
  • W7: Bye.
  • W8: Lost to Alabama, 33-14.
  • W9: Beat New Mexico State, 52-10.

10/15/16: Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC, #1)

  • W1: Clobbered #20 USC, 52-6.
  • W2: Beat Western Kentucky, 38-10.
  • W3: Beat #19 Ole Miss, 48-43.
  • W4: Beat Kent State, 48-0.
  • W5: Beat Kentucky, 34-6.
  • W6: Beat #16 Arkansas, 49-30.
  • W7: Clobbered #9 Tennessee, 49-10.
  • W8: Beat #6 Texas A&M, 33-14.
  • W9: Bye

10/29/16: South Carolina (4-4, 2-4 SEC, NR)

  • W1: Beat Vanderbilt, 13-10.
  • W2: Lost to Mississippi State, 27-14.
  • W3: Survived East Carolina, 20-15.
  • W4: Lost to Kentucky, 17-10.
  • W5: Lost to Texas A&M, 24-13.
  • W6: Lost to Georgia, 28-14.
  • W7: Bye.
  • W8: Beat UMass, 34-28.
  • W9: Beat Tennessee, 24-21.
Let's toss a handful of salt into this wound and grind it in deep, shall we? Of the five teams Tennessee has beaten, four of them now have better records than the Vols do. Two of them are ranked in the Top 25. And Florida is now 6-1 overall, 4-1 in the SEC, and ranked 10th in the nation. We beat them, and it didn't matter. That's the worst of it all, right?

Recalibrating the Vols' future opponents

11/5/16: Tennessee Tech (3-5, 3-3 OVC, NR)

  • W1: Lost to Wofford, 21-7.
  • W2: Beat Austin Peay, 41-7.
  • W3: Lost to Mercer, 34-27.
  • W4: Lost to UT Martin, 44-23.
  • W5: Beat Eastern Kentucky, 33-30 in OT.
  • W6: Lost to Jacksonville State, 40-21.
  • W7: Lost to E Illinois, 30-24.
  • W8: Beat SE Missouri St., 21-20.
  • W9: Bye.

Expectations for a Vols win (on a scale from 5-30): I'm even moving this game to 27 until I figure out what to expect from Tennessee.

W1 W2 W3 W4 W5 W6 W7 W9 W10
29 29 29 29 29 29 29 29 27

11/12/16: Kentucky (5-3, 4-2 SEC, NR)

  • W1: Collapsed and lost to Southern Miss, 44-35.
  • W2: Lost to Florida, 45-7.
  • W3: Beat New Mexico State, 62-42.
  • W4: Beat South Carolina, 17-10.
  • W5: Lost to Alabama, 34-6.
  • W6: Beat Vanderbilt, 20-13.
  • W7: Bye.
  • W8: Beat Mississippi State, 40-38.
  • W9: Beat Missouri, 35-21.

Expectations for a Vols win (on a scale from 5-30): Sigh. This is what happens when your team has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Kentucky is second in the SEC East standings, and I don't know what the numbers and the bookies say, but with an inability to determine what Tennessee's going to do going forward, the game between the Vols and the Wildcats could very well be a shrug game at kickoff. 15. Yes, I said 15. Appreciate the significance of this move from a self-confessed tweaker.

W1 W2 W3 W4 W5 W6 W7 W9 W10
24 26 27 22 23 24 24 22 15

11/19/16: Missouri (2-6, 0-4 SEC, NR)

  • W1: Lost to West Virginia, 26-11.
  • W2: Beat Eastern Michigan, 61-21.
  • W3: Lost to Georgia, 28-27.
  • W4: Beat Delaware State, 79-0.
  • W5: Lost to LSU, 42-7.
  • W6: Bye.
  • W7: Lost to #18 Florida, 40-14.
  • W8: Lost to MTSU, 51-45.
  • W9: Lost to Kentucky, 35-21.

Expectations for a Vols win (on a scale from 5-30): These guys still look terrible, but who wins between terrible and totally unpredictable? 19.

W1 W2 W3 W4 W5 W6 W7 W9 W10
19 25 23 19 19 22 23 27 19

11/26/16: Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3 SEC, NR)

  • W1: Lost to South Carolina, 13-10.
  • W2: Beat MTSU, 47-24.
  • W3: Lost to Georgia Tech, 38-7.
  • W4: Beat Western Kentucky, 31-30 in overtime.
  • W5: Lost to Florida, 13-6.
  • W6: Lost to Kentucky, 20-13.
  • W7: Beat Georgia, 17-16.
  • W8: Beat Tennessee State, 35-17.
  • W9: Bye.

Expectations for a Vols win (on a scale from 5-30): 17.

W1 W2 W3 W4 W5 W6 W7 W9 W10
26 24 25 23 25 23 25 23 17