Recap: Tennessee at Georgia
Tennessee Stat Book
AP Top 25 College Football
Florida and Alabama are the obvious candidates when Tennessee fans debate the team they would most like to beat. Georgia and South Carolina probably come next.
After what happened last November in Lexington, Ky., UT fans also could get revved up about the Vols exacting revenge on Kentucky, which ended a 26-game series losing streak last year. But the biggest game of the season suddenly has become Mississippi State.
And that's not just because it's next.
This has become the most important game of coach Derek Dooley's three seasons at UT. The significance was apparent as soon as UT lost to fifth-ranked Georgia 51-44 on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
If the Vols had held their seven-point, second-half lead against Florida or if they had upset Georgia, the Mississippi State game wouldn't be as crucial. There would be more margin for error.
Now, it likely will determine where the UT season is headed — and perhaps, whether the Dooley era will reach Season 4.
A victory over Mississippi State would be UT's first against a nationally ranked team since October of 2009. It would set Tennessee up for a strong finish and a possible 8-4 season, which would be its best since 2007.
A loss would set the Vols up for a fall comparable to last season's.
I realize sports often don't go according to form. So, if UT loses to Mississippi State, you can't assume it would lose its next two games as well, even though Alabama and South Carolina are unbeaten and prominently situated among college football's elite. But would you bet against it?
Answer: Not if you check UT's recent history.
Adversity has been compounded with these guys. You have seen that from one game to the next or from one play to the next.
The problem was glaring against Florida, which UT outplayed for two and a half quarters before collapsing in the face of a late Gators surge. That's why Saturday's game against unbeaten Georgia was so significant.
After falling behind the Bulldogs 27-10 in the first 19 minutes, the Vols rebounded to take the lead. After Georgia moved back in front by 14 points in the second half, the Vols bounced back again.
Despite such resilience, how could you expect them to come back from a loss to Mississippi State? That would kill any hope they had of winning the SEC East and would leave them 0-3 in conference play with No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 South Carolina next on the schedule.
But if they could beat Mississippi State in Starkville, the outlook might change considerably. Their losing streaks against nationally ranked teams, and against conference opponents on the road would no longer be pressing topics. And their confidence would get a bigger boost than their record.
Increased confidence doesn't mean they could knock off Alabama or South Carolina. They likely would be more competitive in both cases, though, just as they were against Georgia.
Since the Mississippi State game has become so important, the Vols should be grateful for their open date. It couldn't have come at a better time. In the midst of four consecutive games against nationally ranked opponents, this one is the most winnable. So much the better to have more time to prepare.
The Vols need every advantage they can get.