Wiedmer: Could Bama and Georgia be vulnerable enough for UT to shock the world?

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel watches his team during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Fill in the blanks ...

The Tennessee Vols can win every football game on their schedule except _____ and _____.

Easy, right?

Those answers haven't changed since last season's College Football Championship ended with UT watching fellow Southeastern Conference brothers Georgia and Alabama playing for a national title ultimately won by UGA.

From that point forward, the overwhelming belief has been that both within the SEC and throughout the country -- with the very possible exception of Ohio State -- everyone else is playing for third.

So no matter how much the Big Orange might improve in its second season under offensive mastermind Josh Heupel, it couldn't possibly become strong enough to upset either Alabama inside Neyland Stadium on October 15, or shock the defending national champs between their famed hedges on November 5.

Or could it?

Could UT -- at least partly because both the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs looked at least a wee bit vulnerable for very different reasons this past weekend -- suddenly, and reasonably, have undefeated dreams for the first time since it ran the table on its way to the 1998 national title?

Could it shock the country the way it did that year, the season after Peyton Manning graduated?

Sure, it's still a looooong shot. Bama quarterback and 2021 Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young -- currently listed as day-to-day by Tide coach Nick Saban after suffering a sprained right throwing shoulder at Arkansas over the weekend that led him to sit out the second half -- would still need to be on the injury shelf. Otherwise, it's almost impossible to imagine the much-victimized Vols defense putting up enough resistance to knock off a Saban-coached Bama bunch for the first time ever, which also equates to the last 15 years.

Then there's Georgia. The Dawgs may indeed have played like, well, dogs for much of the night at Missouri, but they did pull out the win despite a handful of key injuries and an understandable sense of overconfidence against what many folks believe to be the SEC's worst team.

In truth, this one looks at least as unlikely as upsetting Alabama, if only for it being a road game, but there's still a month to go before the Vols visit UGA, and a lot can happen -- especially in the injury department -- to level the playing field in almost any conference game.

But there are also signs already pointing in UT's favor, however minuscule they may be.

For instance, for this Saturday's game at LSU -- where the Bayou Bengals and their fanbase often turn twice as nasty after dark inside Tiger Stadium -- ESPN has set the kickoff for high noon EDT, and an even more hospitable 11 a.m. locally.

Noted Heupel on Monday of that development: "If you ask coaches everywhere, they say give me the earliest kickoff possible."

Then comes the annual Third Saturday in October game against Alabama. Exactly 40 years ago, in 1982, the Vols snapped an 11-game losing streak to the Tide and some coach famous for winning national championships while wearing a houndstooth hat. The final score on that Oct. 17 day inside Neyland Stadium against a No. 2-ranked Bama team was 35-28 in favor of the Big Orange. A similar score, given the Vols' offensive prowess, might be in the works if Young is still sidelined.

Then there are the Nike Smokey Grey uniforms the Vols are scheduled to wear at LSU. UT is 3-1 lifetime in such Nike attire, including a pair of 21-point comebacks against Florida (2016) and Georgia (2015). Of course, the last time UT turned smokey, it got burned by Georgia 41-0 in 2017. Make of that what you will.

Is any of this certain? Absolutely not. For one thing, any team with a defense as weak as UT's looked against Florida, and at times Pitt, is vulnerable against almost everyone. Offense varies, often, literally, gone with the wind. Defense, really good defense along the lines of Bama and Georgia, rarely takes a night off. If Heupel's staff can't correct that over time, the Vols will never win the SEC, much less a national championship.

But there are days when the sports world turns upside down. We've already seen it this season with Marshall winning at Notre Dame, Appalachian State stunning Texas A&M, Georgia Southern topping Nebraska. And Tennessee is much better than any of those victors.

As Heupel addressed the trip to LSU on Saturday, he said of the challenge: "This is a tough place to play, but it's so much about us and our preparation (and) making sure that we handle things the right way. We have to take care of the football, we can't have penalties. You can't do things that hurt yourself in this football game. It's a really good team that we're playing."

In the SEC, everybody's pretty good when matched against most of those from elsewhere.

Yet for the first time in more than two decades, Tennessee appears to have a team that has a chance to make something special happen over the next two months. Perhaps not a great chance. Certainly not a favorite's a chance. But a realistic chance nonetheless.

Said UT senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin on Monday of such showdowns: "It's just some lifelong things that you can always remember and tell your kids, family and friends."

Especially if you're remembering a time you helped Tennessee beat Alabama, Georgia or both.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.