ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) throws to a receiver during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn. against Georgia won 41-17. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

As any Texas Longhorn football fan can angrily explain to you this week, assuming you'll win any game on your schedule just because you're a 31-point favorite can be risky business.

So just because Tennessee should be favored by at least that many points in its two remaining games against South Alabama this Saturday night in Neyland Stadium and against vapid Vanderbilt the following weekend at that same locale, doesn't mean the Vols can't lose on their home turf in the same shocking way that other UT did this past weekend to Kansas.

It's just not likely.

But just in case the Big Orange lays one of the biggest eggs in SEC history in either of those games, first-year UT-Knoxville coach Josh Heupel would do well to avoid the same quote Longhorns first-year coach Steve Sarkisian used when asked if his players had checked out on the season.

Replied Sarkisian — who's being paid $5.2 million this fall as part of a six-year, $34 million contract, to avoid such losses and questions — "I don't know. You'd have to ask them."

You can guarantee that most Texas fans don't know today if Sarkisian is the guy to return the Burnt Orange to greatness.

You can also guarantee that most, if not all Tennessee fans are quite convinced that Heupel — who is making $1.2 million less than Sarkisian this season — is indeed the man to return the Big Orange to greatness.

Just revisit his reply to a question about whether or not he was worried his players might have a letdown after Saturday's loss to top-ranked Georgia: "Nah. No doubts in our guys and who they are. Tonight's loss wasn't because of lack of focus or preparation. We just didn't execute. I'll compete with these guys every Saturday."

All of which brings us back to those two remaining games against South Alabama and Vanderbilt and what may await Heupel and Co. should they do the expected and win both.

Two victories would elevate the Vols to 7-5 overall and 4-4 within the Southeastern Conference, a remarkable accomplishment for a team most feared would fair no better than 5-7 overall and possibly 4-8.

Instead, as Heupel has been prone to do at every stop on his resume, the UT offense became one of the nation's most potent attacks, the defense was much saltier than predicted, and it could be argued — given UT's victory at SEC East runner-up Kentucky and its gritty showing at Alabama — that the Vols were actually the East's second best squad behind Georgia.

And should Kentucky lose at Louisville on Thanksgiving weekend, a fair argument can be made for the Big Orange overtaking the Big Blue on the SEC's bowl ladder, if only because the UT fan base will be much more excited to follow its Vols than UK's Big Blue Nation will be to back the Cats, who, should they lose to Louisville, will have dropped four of their final six.

Let's be honest here. Once you get past the College Football Playoff teams, and maybe the New Year's Six Bowls such as the Peach and Sugar and Fiesta, bowls are all about money, as in which fan bases can generate the most money for a particular bowl city.

Given the momentum the Vols would have should they win three of their last four games, and how well their fans traveled to Jacksonville a couple of years ago for the Gator Bowl against Indiana, there should be a fair amount of lobbying for their services.

What does that mean?

Well, assuming No. 2 Alabama loses to Georgia in the SEC title game and misses the playoffs, the Crimson Tide would seemingly have to soothe its wounded ego with the Sugar Bowl. Let Ole Miss finish 10-2 — which would also mean knocking off dangerous Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl — and the Rebs are likely headed to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

After that is where it could get interesting. For instance, right now Florida, despite its reeling 5-5 record, is projected to play in Charlotte's Duke's Mayo Bowl. But what if the Gators lose out against Missouri and Florida State? That would eliminate them from bowl consideration.

LSU's not supposed to reach a bowl under lame-duck coach Ed Orgeron, but what if the Bayou Bengals upset Texas A&M on Thanksgiving weekend — especially after A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said Monday he'd be the "dumbest human being on God's green earth" to leave the Aggies for LSU?

What if Missouri, so bad for so much of this season, wins out against Florida and at Arkansas?

There's lot going on here with two weekends to go, and no one knows anything at this point except we think we know that whatever happens in the SEC title game against Georgia, the Bulldogs are headed for the College Football Playoff, win or lose in Atlanta.

So while most predictions have Tennessee in Nashville's Music City Bowl, a trip to Florida for the Gator Bowl or Outback Bowl, though unlikely given the current SEC standings, could still be possible.

Regardless, as UT senior Ramel Keyton said Monday of the possibilities moving forward: "We can go to a bowl game, win out so that going into next year we have a lot of momentum. We're just ready to keep going."

If nothing else, wherever they go, the Vols are certainly headed in a better direction under their first-year coach than that other UT down in Texas is under its first-year coach.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT