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We can now talk about Tennessee and the College Football Playoff

It’s safe now — and it’s time to discuss.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

By and large, we’ve avoided this topic. We’re Tennessee fans — the guard never goes down. We needed to see Tennessee beat Florida, they did. We needed to see them not collapse on the road against Pittsburgh or LSU. They didn’t.

The potential was always there for Tennessee to enter the Alabama game undefeated, but most of us assumed they wouldn’t. After all, it’s just year two under Josh Heupel. It’s not all that realistic to expect that with such a tough schedule.

Yet they did — and then they took down Alabama, too.

This is new territory for Tennessee. The Volunteers have never been in the thick of a battle for the College Football Playoff. BCS battles? Sure. That was commonplace back in the day. But when those first CFP rankings come out on November 1st, the Volunteers will be in the thick of it. Assuming they beat Kentucky, they’ll be in the top four, too.

Tennessee is now the AP No. 3, switching spots with Alabama after the win. They now trail only Georgia and Ohio State in the polls, with Michigan, Clemson, Alabama, Ole Miss, TCU and UCLA lurking in striking range.

The Volunteers are now halfway through their schedule with six games left. They’ve picked up four ranked wins to this point, with two more left. UT-Martin comes to town this week before Kentucky takes their turn on October 29th. That begins a critical two-week stretch — vs. Kentucky and at Georgia.

From there, Tennessee simply has to take care of business against mediocre teams.

Tennessee remaining 2022 schedule

vs. UT-Martin

vs. No. 19 Kentucky

at No. 1 Georgia

vs. Missouri

at South Carolina

at Vanderbilt

The timing of UT-Martin is great, particularly for injury reasons. Tennessee has a lot of moving parts in the secondary, including off-field stuff with safety Jaylen McCollough. Top corner Kamal Hadden didn’t play against Alabama with a hamstring, while CB2 Christian Charles exited late with an injury of his own. Former CB1 Warren Burrell is already lost for the year, while Dee Williams is just trying to settle in. Tim Banks and Willie Martinez played a number of bodies at corners, and will do so again against a cupcake opponent next week.

It’s also going to give Cedric Tillman another week to recover from his high ankle injury. There was a chance of Tillman playing against Alabama, but the staff played it safe. Now they’ve got a chance to be rewarded for that patience, getting an extra two weeks to get Tillman back for Kentucky. People aren’t really talking enough about what that is going to add to this offense, in my opinion.

That sets up a two-week stretch that will more than likely tell us all we need to know. Kentucky has a bye week, giving them two weeks to prepare and get quarterback Will Levis healthy. It’s an easy look-ahead spot for Tennessee, riding high off of their win against Alabama. However, the UT-Martin week gives them a chance to reset and settle in again.

Let me think out loud for a minute.

Let’s assume Tennessee wins that game against Kentucky. That would mean a November 5th meeting in Athens with the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. What a scene that would be.

Kirby Smart’s team is off this week, then gets Florida in Jacksonville on October 29th. Again, the first batch of CFP rankings comes out the following Tuesday — the Tuesday ahead of Tennessee-Georgia.

The winner, assuming there are no slip-ups, will more than likely represent the SEC East in Atlanta. Also more than likely — the winner will face Alabama. This also assumes that Alabama gets past Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU and Auburn.

  • If Tennessee beats Georgia, they get Alabama again in Atlanta. The winner obviously would punch their ticket to the CFP. We can’t say this with 100 percent certainty, but a 12-1 Tennessee team that split with Alabama would also very likely be in that final four.
  • If Tennessee loses to Georgia, things are more dicey. An 11-1 Tennessee team would be watching the SEC Championship from home. They would likely need Georgia to give Alabama their second loss to make the final four. Otherwise, just as it happened last year, both Alabama and Georgia would probably make the big show.

Per ESPN’s FPI, Tennessee now has a 49 percent chance to make the CFP. They have an 8.8 percent chance of winning the SEC and an 22.4 percent chance to win the East. There’s now an 18 percent chance of Tennessee appearing in the National Championship Game, with FPI giving the Volunteers a 7 percent shot of winning it all.

Going into the Alabama game, it was all on the table for Tennessee. Coming out of the Alabama game, things are now very, very real for Josh Heupel’s Volunteers.

It’s almost unfathomable, but here we are.