Tennessee’s defense forced seven three-and-outs against Missouri on Saturday; and tailback Jalen Hurd (151 rushing yards) was spectacular for the Vols, now winners of four straight.
But here’s the thing: We’ll likely spin a remarkably similar tale about Tennessee this time next year — in terms of Hurd (currently a sophomore) dominating the Tigers … and the Vols riding a four-game win streak.
And that’s not necessarily good news.
Over a stretch of five Saturdays during September and October, the 2015 Volunteers incurred a 1-3 record against Florida, Arkansas, UGA and Alabama — relative titans of the SEC. And in 2016, Tennessee will again wager its premium-bowl hopes against a grueling September/October run of Florida (home), Texas A&M (away), UGA (road) and Alabama (home).
But unlike this season, there are no byes during that four-game gauntlet in 2016.
Yes, college football is a cyclical machine, where good teams suddenly become mediocre and middling programs forge instant turnarounds; and the Volunteers are apparently headed for a third consecutive top-15 recruiting class come February — stocking the shelves with more Hurd-like dynamos.
That said, Florida, Alabama, Texas A&M and UGA could all be top-15 stalwarts next season. As such, even with a respectable 2-2 record against the Big Four, the Volunteers would have a razor-thin margin for their other eight games — relative to the hopes of making a New Year’s Six bowl.
And that’s asking a lot of a program which, in the post-Phillip Fulmer era, has collected few victories over top 10 teams.