Heading into the 2012 season, whatever optimism we could muster included an assumption about Tennessee’s program against the middle tier of its schedule: not just that the Vols would restore order against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, but that Tennessee would take care of business against NC State and Mississippi State, because that’s what Tennessee should do.
Missouri joined the SEC that year, 8-5 the year before, champions of the Big 12 North the year before that, and not too far removed from flirting with the national title in 2007. But the Tigers were still part of that assumption: we’ll beat Missouri, because that’s what Tennessee should do.
Fans were out on Derek Dooley by the time we got to the Tigers, in part because he failed to beat Mississippi State along with a host of ranked foes. It took some of the air out of a thrilling four-overtime affair, won by the Tigers after the Vols blew a 28-14 third quarter lead. Missouri – like Arkansas, South Carolina, and Texas A&M – beat the Vols and our assumptions in our first meeting as conference rivals.
The Tigers ascended to the East title the following two seasons as Butch Jones started brick-by-bricking; Tennessee got Missouri in a hard-fought defensive slugfest in 2015 and the polar opposite of that game in 2016. But the last two years, Missouri dismantled Tennessee by identical 50-17 scores. The first was Butch Jones’ final game, but last year was far more costly: the Tigers knocked Jarrett Guarantano out of the game after two passes, then knocked the momentum out of Tennessee’s season.
Seven years and two coaches later, those assumption are gone. But it’s important that they start making their way back. And the only way to do that is for Tennessee to beat South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt on a regular basis.
Since the Tigers came into the league, the Vols have gone 4-0 against the second tier of the SEC East just once, in 2015. Consider the way this used to work:
- 38-1 vs South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt from 1992-2004, which means the Vols won 38 in a row after losing at South Carolina in 1992.
- 15-6 vs South Carolina, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt from 2005-2011. Steve Spurrier’s arrival instantly changed the South Carolina game; the Vols were also beaten by an NFL quarterback in 2005 and a WR quarterback in 2011.
- 15-17 vs South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt from 2012-2019, including 2-0 so far this season.
Not only is 2015 Tennessee’s only sweep since Missouri joined the league, 2014 is the only time the Vols went 3-1 against this tier. To be sure, there were some really good South Carolina and Missouri teams in the first half of this decade. But the fact that Tennessee has a losing record against what used to be the tier of assumption proves the Vols have belonged in it.
The belief that Tennessee has to start beating these four teams regularly before it can worry about Florida, Georgia, and Alabama isn’t a casualty of Georgia State. The last time it looked like Tennessee separated themselves, it was this tier – South Carolina and Vanderbilt – that cost the Vols the most in 2016.
We’re not going back to 38-1. South Carolina was bowl eligible once in the 90’s; they’ve gone 14 times since 2000. Missouri came in on similar footing to Arkansas and already won the division twice. And Mark Stoops has elevated Kentucky to the point that a 6-6 finish this year might be a legitimate disappointment.
But the ice is getting thin everywhere outside of Lexington. Missouri, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt could all be breaking in a new coach next season. The timing is right for separation.
Let’s be clear: the Vols are underdogs tomorrow night. Tennessee has covered the spread five weeks in a row, and if they make it six it’ll be the first time since at least 1990. If the Vols fall to the Tigers in a close game and beat Vanderbilt, it’ll still be a job well done since October. But if we’re looking for separation language in the summer months, this is the win to get. Redemption can still be discussed at 6-6. Win tomorrow night and take care of Vanderbilt, and the conversation is resurrection. And we can go back to thinking about living dangerously in the upper tier of the SEC East; back to believing that’s where Tennessee belongs.