Like any good magician, Tennessee had us believing that magic is real, that the Volunteers were destined for a dazzling prestige every week (a disappearing 21-0 deficit here, a Hail Mary there) and that every final whistle would, somehow, signal a “W” for Rocky Top.
On Saturday, the illusion hit its peak … and then crashed down with one errant Josh Dobbs throw.
All of a sudden, we remembered: Oh yeah, Tennessee has been sloppy all season. Dobbs isn’t much of a passer. The list of injured Vols could be mistaken for a full-team roster. Their signature trait is coming back from large holes that they dig for themselves. And so on.
The Volunteers will host the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in Knoxville next week. Virtually every national pundit will pick the Tide to mop up the physically and emotionally battered home squad, and those pundits probably won’t be wrong.
So, we’re talking about a two-loss Tennessee team that must A) win out and B) hope Florida does not win out in order for the Big Orange to reach its first SEC championship game in nine years.
Let’s say — optimistically — that Florida and LSU find a way to reschedule their game.
That leaves the following conference schedules for the pair of East favorites:
- Oct. 15 — vs. Alabama
- Oct. 29 — at South Carolina
- Nov. 12 — vs. Kentucky
- Nov. 19 — vs. Missouri
- Oct. 15 — vs. Missouri
- Oct. 29 — vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville)
- Nov. 5 — at Arkansas
- Nov. 12 — vs. South Carolina
- TBD — vs. LSU
Tennessee, which holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, should still be considered the favorite; it has three favorable matchups after Alabama, while Florida could easily fall to Georgia, Arkansas or LSU (if they actually play).
Vols fans have reason to worry, though: A 6-1 Gators team (with no rescheduled LSU game) would surpass a 6-2 Vols team in the standings, and move on to Atlanta.
That goes for 5-2 vs. 5-3, too; and it would not be surprising to see such a scenario, given these teams’ reluctance to dominate inferior opponents.
On Saturday, we nearly saw Tennessee — the team that began the season No. 9 and went on such an unimpressive 5-0 run that it still was No. 9 entering this week — nearly bump its status from SEC East contender to College Football Playoff contender.
An amazing finish in College Station teetered the Vols’ way for a brief moment — the most spectacular play was made by Vols cornerback Malik Foreman, who raced to catch up to Aggies running back Trayveon Williams and strip him of the football for a game-saving touchback — but Dobbs’ interception on the opening play of the Vols’ second overtime possession provided an anti-climactic end for a team that had become masterful at survival.
Now, Tennessee is forced to confront a scary question: Is the magic gone?
The Volunteers will need one hell of an act against the Crimson Tide next week to make us believe again.