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Tennessee’s Path to a Bowl Game

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What’s the likeliest group of wins for Tennessee?

Mississippi State v Tennessee Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Tennessee currently sits at 2-4 on the season after a refreshing victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in front of a desperate fanbase. It’s certainly not the record anyone predicted in the preseason—and truthfully, it might not even be the record predicted after the Georgia State loss. The win over the Bulldogs was a crucial step in regaining momentum and showing everybody the team still has life.

Right now, the goal is to make it to a bowl game. That’s not an acceptable goal at Tennessee in the second year of a head coach, but it is the reality of the current situation. If anyone wants some sort of program stability, Tennessee making a bowl game would be the best possible development for it.

Two weeks ago, it looked nearly impossible for Tennessee to make a bowl. Now? We break down the remaining teams on Tennessee’s schedule and give a look into how Tennessee might be playing in the postseason.

Locks

None.

Clear Favorite

Vanderbilt

The Commodores are not the team they were last year. They’ve struggled mightily to maintain their offensive identity after Kyle Shurmur graduated, and Derek Mason’s defense has taken a corresponding step back. This is the Vandy of old. Ke’Shawn Vaughan is still respectable at least.

Then again, this isn’t your Tennessee of old, and the truth is the Volunteers are beginning to show signs of a mental block against the Commodores. It’s an embarrassing streak that any self respecting fan should grind their teeth at. Tennessee needs to come out and impose their will on a sliding Vanderbilt team. They won’t have the protection issues and they won’t have much trouble shutting down a one dimensional offense. If they can’t win this one…immediately send out coaching feelers.

UAB

There’s few guarantees with this Tennessee team. Still, they should be able to beat an offensively stagnant Blazers team by enough points to relax fans heading into the fourth quarter. Key word being “fourth quarter”, because the Blazers have a good enough defense to keep themselves in it for a majority of this game. In fact, the disparity between UAB’s offense and defense is quite similar to Tennessee’s. They are ranked 115th in SP+ offense but 46th in SP+ defense.

Coin Flip

Kentucky

What concerns me about the Kentucky game is their defensive floor. The Wildcats have been able to either control or remain consistent at every line of scrimmage this season, and that likely won’t change against the Volunteers. Notably their front seven does a good job pressuring quarterbacks.

Should Tennessee revert to its 2018 offense that helped them notch a victory over a ranked Wildcats team? Frankly, it wouldn’t be the worst idea. Kentucky has genuine weak spots in the secondary that can be exploited. It’s a matter of giving your quarterback enough time to find those open receivers.

Offensively, Kentucky recently had to start their wide receiver in place of any scholarship QB, as their depth chart is now racked with injuries. Tennessee shouldn’t have too much trouble stopping the run and forcing Kentucky to beat them through the air—regardless if its Lynn Bowden Jr. or Sawyer Smith. Yet that type of offense can really wear on an opposing side if that side isn’t supported much by their offense.

Decent Shot

South Carolina

Do not let the Georgia win fool you. South Carolina is nowhere near an elite level. At the end of regulation, they had been outgained by the Bulldogs nearly 2-to-1. They had just an 8 percent win expectancy according to Bill Connelly. Turns out that when one team turns it over and the other team doesn’t, weird things tend to happen!

They still have a top-15 defense coached by a guy who knows a thing or two about good defenses (paired with some of the worst game management decisions of the past 50 years). Tennessee’s best chance here is to attack their safeties, though admittedly North Carolina and Georgia had a decent amount of success running the ball. Frankly there doesn’t seem much that Tennessee will be able to do here.

Which means the onus will be on the defense to minimize the scoring and try to come up with a turnover or two. South Carolina had a lot of explosive plays in 2018 when the two matched up, and those explosive plays singlehandedly downed Tennessee. The Volunteers have improved defensively and shouldn’t be collapsing like they did against the Gamecocks. Add in the fact that this is at Neyland, and we might have ourselves a barnburner.

Huge Underdog

Missouri

The Tigers had two paths to choose from when they received their postseason ban (currently under appeal). They could either give up on the season and let it bottom out—or they could use it as motivation and play up to their potential.

Then a loss to Wyoming happened. Sounds like it’s the former option, right?

Wrong! Since that loss, the Tigers laid a whooping on West Virginia, South Carolina, and Ole Miss. That’s not an elite slate of teams, but it’s an obvious signal that the Tigers refuse to be seen as an afterthought. SP+ even has them as a top-10 team at the moment! They boast the 32nd ranked offense with the 13th ranked defense. If there’s anyone who could play spoiler in the SEC East playoff hopes—it’s the Tigers.

This also means that Tennessee’s chances look bleak from this standpoint. Missouri is closer to Georgia level than they are South Carolina. Tennessee’s best hope is to limit Kelly Bryant on the ground and hope that the offensive line can hold up long enough to give the running game some life.

Not Happening

Alabama

It’s not happening. Alabama has too good an offense to score less than 30 in the first half. Every weakness Tennessee has, Alabama has the opposing strength in spades. Stranger things have happened, of course.