As Tennessee approaches the final off week of the 2013 season, the Vols have faced an unpleasant surprise in November, thus far.
Despite a predictably lopsided loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Tennessee played incredibly inspired football in their games against Georgia and South Carolina. Back at the beginning of the year, October was the hurdle. The mindset was: steal one in October and cruise through a seemingly softer November, back to bowl eligibility. But like so many things this year, that plan changed.
Missouri and Auburn, Tennessee's first two November opponents, were not supposed to be the powerhouses that they have grown to be this year. The final four games of the year, from August, looked like a bloodsport for bowl eligibility and to avoid the basement of the SEC. While the Vols have slightly exceeded expectations by stealing the South Carolina game, their November opponents have shattered their pre-season expectations.
That was all-too-evident this past Saturday, when Missouri absolutely punished Tennessee.
Since entering their match-up against Alabama with a 4-3 record and a wealth of unexpected momentum, Tennessee has been outscored 76-13. They have also, once again, transitioned away from Justin Worley at the quarterback position, this time due to a hand injury. The young Vols are now being led by the smart, talented, but inexperienced Joshua Dobbs.
And now they must face the overachieving Auburn Tigers who have a profoundly pedestrian passing game....and a very, very good EVERYTHING else.
Like Missouri, Auburn has lost only only one game. Like Missouri, it was against a high-profile SEC opponent, LSU. In fact, if Missouri wins out and Auburn finds a way past Alabama, Tennessee's first two November opponents will be the champions of the SEC East and West.
So much for the relief after October.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's final opponents, lowly rivals Vanderbilt and Kentucky, are still on course to "battle for the basement" and grapple with Tennessee for a bowl trip.
All that being said, this Saturday's match-up against the Auburn Tigers is the last MASSIVE upside-only opportunity of the season for Butch Jones. Wins against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, bowl implications or not, do not mean 1 percent as much as a loss to either. Beyond 2013, the first-year coach's biggest task is rebuilding the heart and fire of the Tennessee fan base, and that is something that will not allow for more losses in these bottom-feeding rivalries. A loss to Auburn, on the other hand, is not devastating to the resurrection of the passionate Vol Nation, but a win against another highly-ranked SEC opponent would be a worth its weight in bricks.
So, if Tennessee can control the line of scrimmage and can force Auburn to pass the ball, Saturday's match-up in Neyland could eclipse the weight of the loss to Missouri and alleviate the pressure of the last two obstacles between the young Vols and their much-desired bowl eligibility.