November has long provided a huge safety net for Tennessee football.
It used to be Kentucky, then Vanderbilt. Then it became Vanderbilt first and Kentucky second. Different order, same results.
The Vols have won 26 consecutive games against Kentucky, whom they play Saturday afternoon in Lexington. They have won 28 of the last 29 against Vanderbilt, whom they beat again Saturday in overtime.
September brings Florida. October is overwhelming at times. But the end of November always has had a warm, fuzzy feel to it. No matter how bad the previous months or weeks might have gone, Vanderbilt and Kentucky have offered a soft landing.
What if the Vols had to give that up when the SEC rearranged schedules to accommodate expansion?
My first reaction to the possibility: Good riddance.
That was before Saturday.
The gloom from six consecutive SEC losses drifted away. The coaches were happy. The team was happy.
No longer did fans have to wonder if the Vols would ever win a conference game or become the first team in school history to lose eight games. Suddenly, there's a bowl buzz.
That's what the one-two punching bag of Vanderbilt and Kentucky keeps doing for UT football. And that's why Tennessee should hope the next SEC schedule doesn't bust up its cozy November arrangement.
I thought otherwise for a while, especially when the Vols were taking it on the chin strap in October from one top-25 SEC team after another. No one has an easy schedule in the SEC. But October was too much even by SEC standards, Combine that stretch with No. 3 Arkansas the second week in November, and the Vols had
played five top-25 teams in six weeks.
By then, I was convinced UT would be better served by moving Kentucky or Vanderbilt to October and playing Georgia or South Carolina in November. What was wrong with me?
No matter what goes wrong the first 11 weeks of the season, the Vols just have to find a way to win four games. Once they tack on Vanderbilt and Kentucky, they're bowl eligible.
The Vols don't want to give that up. And there's a good chance they won't when the SEC announces its 2012 football schedule, which is expected to be completed within a few weeks.
The SEC had two options in formulating the new schedule. It could blow up the existing schedule and start over, or work in Texas A&M and Missouri around the current setup. Not surprisingly, it has taken the second approach.
Even as the conference expands, it's respectful of tradition. Much of that tradition is based on rivalries. It's also based on the timing of those rivalries.
Georgia and South Carolina play in early September, Georgia and Florida in late October, LSU and Alabama play in early November, and Auburn and Georgia play in mid-November.
The Vols get their annual early test against Florida the third week of September. They weather a difficult October as best as they can against Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.
And they count on Vanderbilt and Kentucky to provide a smooth slide to the finish line in November.