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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee running back Eric Gray scored a touchdown to help the Vols take a 10-0 lead against Arkansas on Saturday night in Fayetteville, but the Razorbacks rallied to win 24-13.

Just before Tennessee began its sixth game of an all-Southeastern Conference season, SEC Network analyst Gene Chizik said Saturday of the Volunteers' trip to Arkansas: "I think it's imperative they win tonight. Their schedule is brutal the rest of the way."

Maybe that schedule is that imposing and maybe it isn't, but the Big Orange started their road game looking a whole lot better than they had in a month, the open date certainly helping after three straight losses to Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama.

Again, playing five straight weeks is tough on anyone. Playing five straight weeks against the SEC would wear down the strongest of teams, at least anyone but Alabama.

And when two of those games came against the dynastic Crimson Tide and the formerly intimidating Georgia Bulldogs, well, who wouldn't need a break?

Given that, the Vols certainly looked the more energetic team in the opening half in Fayetteville. After booting a field goal on its first possession, Tennessee drove the ball down the Razorbacks' throats, Eric Gray running it into the end zone for a 10-0 advantage that swelled to 13-0 by halftime.

It was at that moment that Chizik, the former national championship-winning coach at Auburn, said of the Vols' start, "This is the defense that we expected to see."

Then the second half started and it took the Razorbacks three possessions to score three touchdowns and grab a 21-13 lead with four minutes and 13 seconds left in the third quarter.

All of this brought to light a particularly troubling stat: In their three defeats heading into Saturday night, the Vols had been outscored 64-7 in the second half against Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama. Saturday's third quarter at Arkansas moved that to an unfathomable 88-7 when the Razorbacks headed to the fourth up 24-13, which is what the final margin wound up being.

Whether that's coaching, personnel or both is tough to say, but you have to wonder how much closer you're coming to true SEC relevancy when you're dominated that much over the final halves of games.

Yet what any of this will mean for the Vols, who fell to 2-4, or the Hogs, who are even at 3-3, moving forward probably isn't much. Either way, as Chizik pointed out before kickoff, Tennessee's schedule appeared a lot more brutal after Saturday's other SEC results than before play began.

Texas A&M battered South Carolina in Columbia. Florida buried a battered Georgia team in Jacksonville. Even Vanderbilt was respectable against Mississippi State. And playing Auburn in Auburn, as even the Tide have found out in recent years, is often a recipe for failure.

If there's more than one near-certain win among that quartet, your crystal ball is much better than mine.

So does this all mean that Florida is not only now the best team in the SEC East, but also a legitimate threat to beat Alabama in the league title game on Dec. 19 in Atlanta?

Maybe. To be fair, this is not the same Georgia team that crushed both Auburn and Tennessee earlier this season. Former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga trainer Ron Courson got more air time than Bulldogs boss Kirby Smart against the Gators, seemingly on the field all afternoon to assist Georgia players limping to the sideline.

But what the Dawgs really don't have, what they really haven't had all season, is a championship-level quarterback.

Makes you wonder more and more if current Ohio State QB and serious Heisman Trophy contender Justin Fields shouldn't have seen the field more during his time between the hedges as a freshman before transferring.

But he wasn't, and now he looks like he will quarterback one of the two teams that will appear in the national championship game, assuming the coronavirus pandemic allows for such an event to happen.

Who does have a championship quarterback is Florida, which visits the Vols on Dec. 5. Kyle Trask set an SEC record against Georgia by throwing at least four touchdowns for a fifth straight game.

"I think we can play with anybody," Trask said after Saturday's 44-28 win. "We have so many weapons."

At least they now appear to have more weapons than any team in the SEC not named Bama.

As for the Vols, they may need to hope they can find a way for games to end at halftime.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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