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They're back.

The University of Tennessee football team is back. Alabama is back. Auburn is back. The whole Southeastern Conference, even Vanderbilt, is back, because if there's one thing you can't have in the SEC it's getting outworked by your league brethren, COVID-19 be darned.

But are the Volunteers back to once more being relevant within the nation's toughest football conference?

Is this the year UT ends its season in a truly meaningful bowl for the first time since the end of the 1999 campaign, when it lost to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl?

Read that again: The Big Orange hasn't concluded a single season in a big way since assistant coach Tee Martin was a quarterback instead of his current position as assistant head coach.

For a school that's been to as many bowls as the Vols have over the years — 53, which places it behind only Alabama (71), Georgia and Texas (56 each) for the most ever — to not make one of the elites at least once for 20 years is pretty unbelievable.

But all that could change this season, thanks to the Vols having their really good head coach, Jeremy Pruitt, about to begin his third year in Volsville and the program entering this season on a six-game winning streak.

By the way, that streak is the fourth-longest active streak in major college football behind reigning national champion LSU (16), Air Force (eight) and Florida Atlantic (seven). The Vols' run is tied with Appalachian State and Notre Dame.

But how long can it realistically continue with a schedule that includes road games at Oklahoma and Georgia and home showdowns with Florida and Alabama, all four of whom could be ranked in the top 10 at the start of the season?

OK, it's probably folly to say the Vols could go undefeated against that fearsome foursome. But Alabama just might not be vintage Bama this season, and Georgia is replacing nine offensive starters, including quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D'Andre Swift.

Good as Georgia's been at recruiting of late, that's a lot of lost firepower. Also, the UT-Georgia game will be played in November and will arrive immediately after back-to-back games against Florida in Jacksonville on Halloween and at South Carolina the week after that for the Bulldogs.

Beyond that, it could carry the extra intrigue of who's healthy and who's not. If you've already started the season with nine new starters on offense, one can't help but wonder where you are on the depth chart at those positions on Nov. 14.

So while it may be a tall order for the Vols to win at Oklahoma or beat the Gators inside Neyland Stadium, wins against Alabama and Georgia are doable, even if they remain far from certain.

As for the rest, Tennessee should win out, which means a possible finish of 9-3 or even 10-2, assuming the coronavirus pandemic allows for the full 12-game schedule.

But there's another reason to like the Vols, and it has only marginally to do with an upgrade in both talent and experience.

Instead, it has to do with chemistry, which hasn't often seemed a problem in Knoxville, but certainly appears to be an asset this time around.

As this newspaper's David Paschall wrote, quoting Pruitt about the ongoing racial unrest in this country over the killing of George Floyd: "In our program, there is a lot of communicating that goes on, and it's been very positive, and it will continue to be that way. We have a lot of really good leaders in our program."

The best leaders also know when to follow, when to take a step back and listen.

To that end, again per Paschall, Pruitt called a team meeting last week to allow his players to vent their anger and frustration over the current racial divide in this country.

"It was a very powerful meeting for the players on our team," Pruitt said, "and there were a lot of angry young men in there and a lot of guys who had a lot of built-up rage and frustration. We felt like it was the time and place to give our guys a floor to express how they were feeling and to share with the other guys on the team, and I felt like it was a great opportunity for those guys and for us moving forward as a program.

Less than 24 hours after that meeting, Pruitt joined several players in a peaceful march Friday, even speaking for a moment to the crowd, along with linemen K'Rojhn Calbert and Trey Smith.

As the late, great Lady Vols legend Pat Summitt always said, "They never care about how much you know until they know how much you care."

In participating in that march and calling that meeting, Pruitt once more underscored how much he cares about his players both on and off the field. In this day and time, with so much uncertainty engulfing our young people, you can't overestimate the power of that.

Or as Pruitt also noted Tuesday: "Everybody on our team has a voice. "When we were growing up, you did what the teacher said and did what the coach said, and that was it. There were probably times, whether it was on the field or off the field, when you were sitting there saying, 'I wonder why we're doing it this way?' We have a culture in our program to where we want to ask the 'Why?'"

Almost everybody on these 2020 Vols also has experience, including eight returning starters on each side of the ball. When a lot of us were growing up, that was enough to almost always keep UT in the thick of big accomplishments. Come November, barring the kind of major injuries that have too often haunted them in their recent past, these Vols will be, too.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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