There was never a moment Saturday night when Tennessee’s fourth win of the season appeared to be in serious doubt.
Southern Mississippi’s occasionally explosive offense didn’t create a lot of explosion plays, Tennessee took advantage of the Golden Eagles’ 2 turnovers and even though freshman quarterback Will McBride completed only one of his passes after stepping in for the injured Jarrett Guarantano, he avoided throwing any of them to the other team and that was just about all he had to do.
And so, everyone in Vols Nation got a day to breathe. The fan base got to sing Rocky Top together and left Neyland Stadium knowing that, whether they wanted a new coach or not, Butch Jones still was going to be there Monday and then the following Saturday barring some explosive unforeseeable development or revelation.
But then Sunday brought a reminder of the dire state of affairs. The Vegas lines dropped and a Missouri team that lost five of its first six games was billed as a 10.5-point favorite against the Vols, despite the fact that Tennessee beat the Tigers 63-37 last year and 19-8 the year before. It was just about impossible to argue that the guys in Vegas got it wrong, because Missouri just plastered Florida, 45-16. The Vols lost to that same Gators squad on Sept. 16, and it’s arguable that loss represents one of Tennessee’s two or three best performances of the season.
That drives home a point that was also evident Saturday night, when the Vols snapped a four-game losing streak. It is going to be extremely difficult for this team to make a bowl game, which is a particularly tough pill for Vols fans to swallow because that’s just about all there is left to salvage from this season.
Reaching the postseason for the fourth consecutive year is going to require the Vols to pull off an upset in at least one of the next two weeks. Beating Missouri in Columbia seems to be the much more likely scenario, but the Vols don’t appear to have the firepower to make it happen if the game turns into a shootout.
The Tigers are averaging 55 points per game during their three-game winning streak. Granted, two of those three wins came against Idaho and Connecticut and the third was against a Florida team that just fired its coach, but the Vols haven’t cracked 42 points this season and they played Indiana State, UMass and Southern Miss. They haven’t scored 30 points in a game since Guarantano became the quarterback. He showed some progress early in Saturday’s game, but even if he is healthy enough to play Saturday, he’s a long way from being able to go pass-for-pass with Missouri’s Drew Locke, who has 31 passing touchdowns’ this season to Guarantano’s 1. John Kelly looked solid Saturday, but with all the wounds the Vols have suffered on their offensive line, it’s not as if they can expect to match Locke with an overwhelming ground game either.
And if the Vols can’t beat Missouri, that means they have to beat LSU. It’s still not obvious exactly how good LSU is, considering the Tigers were crushed by Mississippi State and beaten by Troy. However, the Tigers also beat Auburn and Florida, and made their game against Alabama at least respectful. As usual, they can’t throw the ball particularly well, but they don’t let anyone throw on them either, and they have enough talent in the backfield to get the points they need.
And if the Vols manage to pull off an upset in one of those two games, they still have to play Vanderbilt. Tennessee will be favored in that one probably — definitely if the Vols manage a win in the next two weeks — but no one needs to be reminded of what happened last season.
Tennessee athletic director John Currie has been purposely vague about his calculus involving Jones, but his reference to his late father, a surgeon, and the idea that “there’s no problem you can’t make worse by operating,” suggests that there’s enough value in this team’s experience and development to protect the players from the chaos of a mid-year coaching change, and that a bowl trip will serve a purpose whether Jones is the head coach next year.
But at this point, the odds are that Jones’ last year at Tennessee ends the same as his first.