For two weeks in a row now, the No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers (5-0, 2-0 SEC) have had to make a huge second-half comeback in order to win.
Without an epic comeback against No. 19 Florida two weekends ago and a miraculous one against No. 25 Georgia last weekend — leaving Tennessee sitting atop the SEC East and still a contender for the College Football Playoffs — we’d be talking about Butch Jones’ team as a disappointment.
In fact, it took a Hail Mary against the Bulldogs for the Volunteers to stave off the disappointment tag.
The Vols have been living life on the edge. They were down 21-3 at halftime against Florida and down 17-7 against the Bulldogs on the way to the locker room. Memories of the Hail Mary catch by Jauan Jennings will be hard to forget, but it also makes it easy to forget that the Bulldogs had actually taken the lead, 31-28, with a Jacob Eason touchdown pass with ten seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
It makes it easy to forget that Tennessee was taken to the limit by Appalachian State to start the season.
So yes, these past few weekends have been magical for the Volunteers and they will go down in Tennessee lore, but for a team with CFP aspirations, the Vols are playing with fire.
If they keep getting off to slow first-half starts, eventually it’s going to catch up with them. Games against No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 1 Alabama both loom large — with the Aggies hosting the Vols this weekend — and those are two teams that simply won’t crumble in the second half and allow Tennessee to get all the way back in it.
Texas A&M can keep a lead on any team off the strength of its offense alone. The Aggies currently lead the SEC in total offense, notching 521 yards per game. That includes 258.60 yards per game on the ground (second best in the SEC) and 15 rushing touchdowns (1st in the SEC), so don’t expect that clock to stop much if Texas A&M gets an early lead on the Vols and takes it into halftime.
Alabama, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. Nick Saban’s No. 1-ranked squad is second in the SEC in total defense and first in scoring offense with 44 points per game.
Starting with Texas A&M, these are two teams that the Vols simply can’t play half a game against. They also likely won’t be afforded the luxury of starting slow.
That’s the pessimistic way to look at it for the Vols, but the glass can be half full as well. Tennessee is currently ranked 11th in the SEC in total offense and sixth in total defense.
Imagine what those rankings would be if the Vols had actually been able to play a full game over the past two weekends. Imagine how scary Tennessee could be if it were to put it all together. That’s something that quarterback Joshua Dobbs spoke about this past week. He was specifically talking about the two come-from-behind wins.
“It gives you confidence, but it also raises the question of ‘If you can do it when you’re down 14, why can’t you just do it from the beginning of the game?’ It might change the whole outcome and complexion of the game,” he said via the team’s website. “That’s what we’re trying to get across and that’s what we’re trying to understand is that we need to come out stronger in the first half and not make uncharacteristic to put us in large deficits that we have to fight out of. Just execute from the beginning of the game and play a full 60-minute game.”
If Tennessee can get through these next two weekends unscathed — which is going to be a tough task — the Vols have a very good shot to run the table and find themselves in the CFP. After Texas A&M and Alabama, Tennessee faces South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
The end of Tennessee’s schedule isn’t exactly a murderers’ row of teams, but it’s almost like a reward for the Volunteers, because this stint they’re currently in sure has been terrible.
Perhaps the best Tennessee can hope for would be a 1-1 split between A&M and Alabama, but even that won’t be realistic if the Volunteers don’t start putting everything together.
Two 60 minute games must be the goal for Jones and the Vols. Anything less will likely leave them out of the CFP conversation heading into the homestretch of the season.