Now that spring practice has concluded, the most popular question I’ve received is “will the Tennessee Volunteers qualify for a bowl game this season?” While it will require the Vols to pull an upset or two, there’s no reason why UT can’t start off the Butch Jones era on a positive note.
A closer look at the schedule will bear this out.
Let’s be honest: the Volunteers won’t beat the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Oregon Ducks this season. Although Tennessee was a much better team than its record showed last year, the inexperienced Vol offense won’t be able to move the ball against the nation’s top defense (Alabama) or outscore the nation’s second-best offense (Oregon).
Aside from the road game at Autzen Stadium—arguably the toughest place in the nation to play—the Volunteers ought to cruise through the non-conference portion of its schedule. The Austin Peay Governors, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and South Alabama Jaguars don’t have the athletes to contend with an SEC caliber opponent for sixty minutes.
Unfortunately, those three wins will only get Tennessee halfway to its goal. If the Vols are going to reach the postseason, they would need to win three of their remaining seven contests.
That’s where things get tricky.
Despite fielding one of the worst pass defenses in the nation last year, UT actually led the Florida Gators at halftime and played the Georgia Bulldogs and South Carolina Gamecocks much closer than expected. While these games might appear to be out of reach this season, it’s worth noting that the Volunteers play Georgia and South Carolina within the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium, making the possibility of an upset much more likely.
Since Tennessee will probably drop all three of those contests—which shouldn’t come as big surprise since each squad will open the season in the top ten—the Volunteers can still make the postseason by winning three of their final four games. UT should have an excellent chance to beat the Auburn Tigers and Kentucky Wildcats because both schools are also in the process of rebuilding. Unless those two squads magically find some firepower on offense—a distinct possibility since Gus Malzahn is one of college football’s best offensive minds—it’s tough to see Tennessee losing either of these games.
Assuming that the Volunteers win both of those matchups, they’ll need an upset over the Missouri Tigers or Vanderbilt Commodores to qualify for the postseason. While these contests might not seem winnable on paper, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. After all, UT had a 14-point lead over Missouri last year before James Franklin sparked a fourth quarter comeback that resulted in 51-48 triple OT loss. Similarly, the Vols have lost to Vandy just three times since 1982, with only one of those losses taking place in Neyland Stadium.
To summarize, Tennessee has an excellent chance to play in a bowl game this year, provided that it pulls off an upset or two during the regular season. With the amount of bad luck that Volunteer fans have had to endure over the past four years, something’s bound to go their way during the 2013 campaign.