When Tennessee's game Saturday at Mississippi State is over — and it might not be finished until 1 a.m. next Sunday — the season will be at its midpoint.
The Vols will either be celebrating their first win over a ranked opponent since 2008 or staring at an 0-3 start in SEC play with games against Alabama and South Carolina looming.
So it's not a stretch to say that the late-night showdown between the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) and No. 20 Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.) carries enormous importance for both teams.
MSU is off to its best start since 1999, and the crowd is likely to be revved up after a full day of pre-gaming. Tennessee's season could be approaching a crucial intersection in the middle of a brutal four-game stretch that began with a loss at Georgia last week.
It may not be halftime of the 2012 season yet, but the off week does provide a chance to review what has gone right, what has gone wrong and where the Vols need to improve. Here are five keys to the second half of the season:
1. Keep the running game going.
Call the success of the ground game a surprise if you must, but coaches have been promising improvement since the spring. A resurgent offensive line combined with tough running from Rajion Neal has given the Vols some serious balance in an offense that lacked it all of last season. Neal entered the weekend leading the SEC in carries and second in rushing yards.
2. Find a way to cut down on the big plays.
Tennessee's defense is never going to put up league-leading statistics while burdened with an offense that runs at warp speed. But the Vols must do a better job of forcing opponents to work for everything they get. The defense seems to play its best in the red zone, but those opportunities don't come about when the other
team is scoring on 75-yard runs.
3. Win the turnover margin.
Tennessee cornerback Byron Moore has a knack for finding the football. He has four of the Vols' nine interceptions. UT had only nine all last season. It's a risk-reward game, and calling for more turnovers while demanding an elimination of big plays is somewhat counter-intuitive. But to win games against Alabama and South Carolina, the Vols will have to take advantage of every mistake made by the opponent — and there probably won't be many of them.
4. Find a kicker and try to stick with him.
Nothing frustrates football coaches more than struggling kickers, so give Derek Dooley credit for supporting his kickers publicly, even if he's pulling his hair out privately. Derrick Brodus looked like he might be the solution, but he missed an extra point and a short field goal last week against Georgia.
The Vols have missed four extra points — although the first one may not have been Michael Palardy's fault and none of the misses have directly impacted a game.
Palardy will get another shot Saturday. The Vols need him to hang onto the job.
5. Keep an eye on the big picture.
This might not be popular advice, because coaches and players prefer to rely on the one-game-at-a-time approach. But when you play Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina in consecutive games, that outlook can be bleak.
The reality is that this four-game stretch would be tough for any team, let alone a squad coming off a five-win season. If the Vols are able to weather this storm without losing focus, they have four winnable games to close the season.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.