NASHVILLE, Tenn. — To be bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010, Tennessee needs to duplicate its 3-3 mark from the first half of the season.
That slim margin of error is courtesy of the Volunteers’ last two SEC games — a gut-wrenching 10-9 home loss to Florida on Oct. 4 and the 35-32 near-miss at Georgia the previous week.
Both defeats fall under the Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda category.
Buffered by a lopsided homecoming win over Chattanooga on Saturday, the Volunteers enter a stretch of six games in seven Saturdays, with the clear intent of not prolonging a four-year bowl drought would match Tennessee’s from 1975-78.
That era covered the final two seasons of the Bill Battle era … and the first two under coach Johnny Majors.
Current coach Butch Jones (in his second year at UT) has rallied the fan base, anchored by nationally ranked recruiting classes and a stubbornness about returning to national prominence.
Plus, the team has shown tangible improvement from last season — highlighting the play of senior QB Justin Worley, freshman tailback Jalen Hurd, sophomore receiver Marquez North, cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker A.J. Johnson, among others.
But that first big step back for Tennessee football lies with bowl eligibility (minimum of six wins). As part of that, the Vols are hoping to avoid a fifth straight losing campaign — which would represent the longest such spell in program history.
The Volunteers open the second half with a gauntlet that includes a trip to No. 3 Ole Miss (Saturday), followed by a home date with No. 7 Alabama next week.
If chalk holds and Tennessee (3-3, 0-2 in SEC) loses both, the Vols would then have to win three of their final four to become bowl-eligible.
This isn’t a good time to draw the Rebels, who parlayed that thrilling home win over Alabama (Oct. 40 into an impressive road triumph over Texas A&M.
The No. 3 ranking aside, one could easily make the case for Ole Miss being the nation’s best team (ahead of Mississippi State and Florida State).
Sure, senior QB Bo Wallace has finally developed some offensive consistency to go with the leadership qualities. The Rebels’ "Land Shark" defense has been stellar, as well.
That’s especially true up front, which doesn’t bode well for the Vols’ inexperienced, injured and outmanned offensive line.
On the plus side, Ole Miss (6-0, 3-0) may be due for a letdown … against a young Vols squad that hasn’t flinched against big-time opponents on the road.
The game always warrants top billing in this old rivalry, but the top sidebar involves the return of former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, now the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
After leading the Vols to their last winning season at 7-6 (2009), Kiffin departed after one year for the head-coaching job at Southern Cal.
It wasn’t so much that Kiffin left for USC; it was how he handled the move. He essentially slipped away from Knoxville during the night and left Volunteers athletic officials holding the bag.
The failed three years that followed under coach Derek Dooley only rubbed more salt in the wound.
Next Saturday, Alabama (5-1, 2-1) will be a prohibitive favorite while trying to work its way back into national-title consideration. But the Crimson Tide have been suspect on the road, beating winless-in-the-SEC Arkansas by only one point.
Last season, the Volunteers followed an overtime loss to Georgia with a home upset of South Carolina — the signature victory of the 2013 campaign.
But Tennessee lost the next four games and entered the season finale against Kentucky with no chance of securing a bowl berth.
This is the first of four winnable games in November. The Gamecocks have struggled defensively and proved vulnerable at home after Missouri rallied in the fourth quarter.
If the Vols can stymie junior tailback Mike Davis and control the ball on offense, they could grab a win.
If the Volunteers enter this SEC East clash at 3-5, as predicted, this may represent the proverbial "swing" game of the final stretch.
This is no longer a "gimme" game for the Volunteers, who completely owned Kentucky for 26 straight wins from 1986-2011.
Second-year Wildcats coach Mark Stoops has increased the talent pool, as evidenced by a win over South Carolina and triple-OT loss to Florida.
Kentucky (5-1, 2-1) is seeking its first winning season and subsequent bowl berth since 2010.
With a road win in its SEC opener, Missouri (4-2, 1-1) seemed more than capable of defending its SEC East title. Certainly, the Tigers had their way with the visiting Vols last year, cruising to a 31-3 rout.
But the 34-0 home loss to Georgia last weekend exposed a team with glaring defensive weaknesses. Then again, the Tigers follow a trip to Florida with homes games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
Without having to play Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss or Mississippi State from the SEC West, the Tigers could still be in the running for the East title by late November.
Heading into this season, Vanderbilt (2-5, 0-4) had been enjoying the best of times with the football program. Under three-year coach James Franklin, the Commodores posted consecutive nine-win seasons and won two straight bowl games for the first time ever.
But this year’s Vandy squad has had a quarterback carousel under new Derek Mason, the former Stanford defensive coordinator. At times, the Commodores look to be in disarray, barely beating FCS member Charleston Southern last Saturday.
If this ends up becoming a must-win game for UT, bowl-invite-wise, Volunteers fans will pack Vanderbilt Stadium even more than usual.
They’ll also go home thinking about playing another game after the regular-season finale — for the first time in five seasons.
Either way, the Volunteers will close the regular season with a win.