Six wins used to be a joke in Knoxville, Tennessee. From 1983 to 2004, the Volunteers had just one season with less than six wins, but since then, there have been four such seasons. Six wins is a magical number. It's the ticket to a postseason game or if you fall short, an early winter break. What are Tennessee's chances of getting to a bowl this year?
In terms of season record, Tennessee is right on track. Virtually everyone had the Vols going 2-2 in their first four games, most likely 3-2 after this weekend's bout with Sun Belt Conference opponent South Alabama.
In terms of player improvement, the first month of the season has quite a bit to say about the prospect of a bowl bid.
On the one hand, Pig Howard and Marquez North have shown their ability to make plays at wide receiver. Brian Randolph and Cam Sutton have been serious forces in a once beleaguered secondary. The offensive line's ceiling is sky high, and they haven't even scraped the top yet.
On the other hand, the quarterback position is a huge question mark. Justin Worley has limited mistakes but hasn't come close to being the producer he needs to be. The Nathan Peterman Experiment went horribly at Florida. He is a talented player but clearly not ready for the job.
But the coaches have gotten through to the players, implementing such traditions as end-of-quarter sprints to the opposite field and fists up on 4th down. Butch Jones has a superior 2014 recruiting class committed, signaling the future potential for his program.
Still, the quarterback position, now and forever, will always dictate how far your team will go. Evaluating the strength of the Tennessee quarterbacks is akin to evaluating Tennessee's bowl chances.
There are two scenarios.
No Noticeable Quarterback Improvement in October
The Volunteers are staring down the barrel of another winless October, the fourth consecutive one if you omit the October 1st victory over mighty Buffalo in 2011.
Tennessee has Georgia and South Carolina coming to town and will close at Alabama. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here predicting an 0-3 record against those three teams. That still leads to four winnable games in November, though, which would lift the Vols to 7-5 on the season.
But what happens if the current quarterback woes persist? What if Worley continues to contribute 125 passing yards, one touchdown and no rushing yards per game the rest of the year? After the Gainesville fiasco, could Peterman be expected to fair any better against this trio of SEC teams, all of whom are better than the Gators?
It's not an uplifting scenario, seeing no October improvement at quarterback. But if it happens, here's how I see Tennessee's bowl chances, i.e., quest to six wins shaking out:
1) Lose to Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama and enter November at 3-5.
2) Travel to Columbia and (maybe) pull a close victory out.
3) Lose to Auburn and Vanderbilt back-to-back.
4) Salvage another losing season with a Kentucky victory and end 5-7.
The italicized portion is the part that matters. With no quarterback improvement, this Tennessee team will absolutely lose to Vanderbilt and a loss to Auburn is likely, too. The Missouri prediction was a gift.
Noticeable Quarterback Improvement in October
This scenario is more positive and somewhat more likely than the previous one. After all, when you consider that Justin Worley joins Peyton Manning and LeBron James as former Gatorade National Player of the Year recipients, you have some think that such a player can improve as a season progresses.
I still think October yields zero wins for the Volunteers. But what if Worley can find some rhythm in the offense? What if he can pull the read option from time to time, gaining five yards and keeping the defense honest? What if he settles in at the position and stops over/underthrowing four receivers per game?
If that happens, here's the alternative look at the rest of the season:
1) Lose to Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama but experience clear and convincing improvement at quarterback. Worley is more confident, more accurate and more prepared to lead.
2) Beat Missouri on the road by 10-14 points.
3) Defeat both Auburn and Vanderbilt in Knoxville. The Vols are bowl eligible at 6-5 for the first time since 2009.
4) Take down Kentucky for the second year in a row, starting a new string of consecutive wins of the Wildcats.
Again, the italicized portion is the most important. While I predict Tennessee will go 0-for-October again, if the quarterback, makes strides, it'll mean a bowl game for the Volunteers.
What Does Improvement Look Like?
Let me be specific.
Tennessee must get back to their early season ways committing little to no penalties and turnovers. The margin for error is nil this season. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane need to become serious forces in the running game and the offensive line has to reach its full potential to do that.
Justin Worley has to trust his arm. It's not a matter of strength or accuracy. It's all between his ears. And finally, his receivers have to catch the passes. Josh Smith has recently begun a bad trend of dropping good passes, and that can't happen if you hope to boost a quarterback's confidence.
Fans can either sit around and groan about how simply "improving" against SEC foes is a sad idea when the Vols used to demand victories, or fans can accept the current situation and react to it. I choose the latter.
In the meantime, watch the development of the quarterback position over the next four weeks. Signs of improvement mean the Volunteers will go bowling. No such signs will lead to a fourth consecutive losing season, the first since 1906.