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July 19, 2013

What's the key for the Vols to get to a bowl?

Friday, we close out our Five Biggest Questions series with an in-depth look at a simply question. What's the biggest key for the Vols to win six games and get bowl eligible. Get the Volquest.com staff's thoughts inside.

What's the biggest key to getting to a bowl?
John's Pick
The platform here is at least three-pronged for Tennessee to snap a stretch of futility among the very worst in the storied program's history.

To get to six wins and the bonus benefits of bowl eligibility --- additional practices for a young team; sustained recruiting momentum for a staff already operating at high level in that regard --- Tennessee probably needs to win at least five home games and find a way to steal one or two road victories at perhaps Missouri and/or Kentucky.

Additionally, it would send a strong signal of the program's direction if the Vols actually win a meaningful October game, something they have not done since knocking off South Carolina in 2009. Finally, learning how to win toss-up games in the fourth quarter is a crucial component of Tennessee's bowl puzzle. A year ago, the Vols had a half-dozen contests --- sadly, including the track meet with Troy --- decided in the fourth quarter or beyond. They were a mere 1-5 in those contests.

Butch Jones has been a winner at every level he's been a head coach, and his teams won eight such fourth-quarter games the past two seasons. In 2011, Jones' Bearcats won five games by single digits including their season-ending bowl win against Vanderbilt in the Liberty Bowl. Last season, Jones' Cincy squad knocked off Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Connecticut --- a game Jones told VolQuest.com was among the most gratifying of his career because of the job speculation surrounding the coach --- by winning the fourth quarters.

Brent's Pick
Obviously this team has some talent deficiencies on both sides of the ball. Can they stop the big play? Can they find ways to score? Those are good questions with real unknowns. But for me, the biggest question this team has to answer if they are going to make it to post-season play is how to they handle adverse situations. Jones and his staff have spent the last 7-8 months trying to make the players in the program comfort with being uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable by changing workout routines or workout times is a long ways from managing your comfort level at Oregon, at Florida, or when your behind against a "must win" opponent. The leadership on this team is said to be better, but it's a group of leaders that has never experienced real success. No four year player in the program has beating a ranked opponent. The four year players are 1-11 in the month of October.

To get to six wins, many things must happen, but none bigger than this team finding some what to persevere when things get difficult.

Rob's Pick
What does Tennessee have to do in order to win six and make a bowl game? For starters the Vols will need to outperform the preseason expectations of the SEC media. A group which just tabbed them fifth in the East this week, which as most interested parties are aware, is a nauseatingly unthinkable spot below Vanderbilt in the projected order of finish.

From a schedule perspective, that's a good starting point. Beating Vandy--in addition to restoring some balance to the universe--could potentially be a big deal in grabbing one of the SEC's nine bowl spots. It's way too early to call that one a 'tiebreaker,' but from this far out it looks like both the Vols and the 'Dores could be among the candidates vying for a December trip to the tourist hot spots of Nashville, Shreveport or Memphis, and a win will go a long way towards securing one side a spot.

The schedule includes three more or less 'gimmees' against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama. For more reasons than getting bowl eligible (like avoiding Armageddon in the Generals Quarters), those are all 'must-wins.' Looking at the SEC schedule, three more wins don't seem out of the question, though they could be a long time coming.

It will seem a long time coming, but November is loaded with winnable games, perhaps even all four of them. Missouri (Nov. 2) certainly didn't storm through its first season in the SEC, Auburn (Nov. 9) is going through it's own coaching change, Vandy (Nov. 23) at home will be imminently an imminently winnable game despite current propaganda to the contrary and the chances of beating Kentucky are never better than excellent.

On the field, what concerns me more than anything is can the Vols get steady quarterback play. That's a question dogging everyone's mind as the season approaches, and with good reason. Yes, there are some legitimate personnel concerns at various spots on both sides of the ball, but none loom larger than under center.

The good news for Butch Jones is that if he can iron out those problems in the first two months of the season--against an admittedly nasty schedule--he's got four manageable opponents waiting for him and his team in November.

Paul's Pick
To get to six wins, the Vols must upset someone. It's hard to imagine Tennessee being the favorite in any game besides the three gimmes in September in October. So, for Tennessee to stay in bowl contention they must not only defeat the three non-conference opponents besides Oregon, the will need to beat someone else along the way in my opinion. That may even have to happen in November, depending on what the season has looked like not only for Tennessee, but for Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

The Vols last beat an SEC team in October was when Lane Kiffin was the coach, that was also the last year the Vols defeated a ranked opponent. While Tennessee may have to do neither to make it to a bowl game, with so many questions surrounding the team if would be a huge coup, and a giant step forward for Jones' program, if the Vols could defeat Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina, or find an upset in September of November.

Austin's Pick
For Tennessee to get bowl eligible I believe they have to do a couple of different things, but most importantly they have to win a game they haven't been able to in recent years. Tennessee hasn't beaten Florida since 2004 and Alabama since 2006. They were able to beat both Georgia and South Carolina under Lane Kiffin in 2009 though and they have both the Bulldogs and Gamecocks in Knoxville. I specifically look at that South Carolina game on October 19th as a real chance for Tennessee to steal one. Butch Jones and the boys will be coming off a week off and they should be rested and healthy. Carolina's strength along the defensive line should be fairly negated by the Vol offensive line.

If Tennessee can win that game, then it still will need to take care of business against the likes of Vanderbilt and Auburn at home in November to get Bowl eligible. It's going to be no small task in making a bowl game for the first time since 2010, but Jones appears to be a coach that gets the most out of his players. And he'll need to do that in 2013 more than ever before. Let's face it, a win over Auburn or South Carolina would be more than Dooley ever accomplished. But if you look back to "Orange Pants" first year, wouldn't that season have been viewed differently with a win in Baton Rouge instead of 73 men on the field? The Schedule is so front loaded with tough games that stealing a win would go a long way to giving this bunch some confidence and might mean not having to run the table in November.



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