The stakes will be high for Butch Jones' Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday night when Vanderbilt comes to Neyland Stadium.
Win, and the Vols' ultimate hopes of reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2010 are alive another week. Lose, and they'll be sitting at home for the holidays once again.
It's the first brush with ulcer-inducing pregame pressure UT has faced all season.
The Vols weren't favored to beat Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri or Auburn. They weren't expected to lose to Austin Peay, Western Kentucky or South Alabama, either.
This is the first real toss-up game on paper, and these next two weeks are the last two opportunities to prove the program is heading in the right direction. The remnants of a narrow overtime loss to Georgia and a signature win against South Carolina have been swept away by a bitter November.
Tennessee is in need of a new injection of hope, and beating Vanderbilt is the only way to administer it.
The magnitude of what awaits the Vols against the Commodores isn't lost on the players.
Sophomore safety Brian Randolph summarized the stakes to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press' Patrick Brown:
It's pretty much Game 7 for us to get into a bowl game. I feel like we're kind of used to the pressure now. We're going to go out there, and we're going to give it our all for Tennessee. I don't think it's going to be a big deal for us.
Once the Vols get on the football field, will it be a different story? Will they wilt under the spotlights, or will they respond like the team that appeared to be making major leaps just a month ago?
Despite the past three weeks where the Vols have simply been outclassed athletically and from a depth standpoint, making a bowl game is a realistic goal.
Nevermind Mizzou and Auburn being much better than anybody expected they'd be. The Vols upset South Carolina to put themselves in this position. Now, they've got two winnable games standing in their way of a reachable goal.
Vanderbilt isn't the hapless program of old, but the Commodores aren't Alabama or Auburn, either. This is a game the Vols are always going to be expected to win.
When they don't, it's something the players can't forget…as much as they try.
If UT doesn't win, it'll be difficult to find any tangible positive takeaways from this season, regardless of the strides players may have made in learning the system and playing the way Jones expects.
The first-year head coach told the media at his weekly press conference posted on UTSports.com that while making a bowl is important, it shouldn't be the only measurement of success:
I think it is superficial, but it is where we are at. Our first year at Cincinnati we finished 4 and 8. It was the most miserable year I have ever had. Looking back on that journey to get that program back, to get that program to where it is right now, that needed to happen. That was the foundation, that was what led us to that standard of excellence.
I think right now they are 8 and 2. You look at after that, we had double digit victories in both seasons and two championships and two bowl victories. I think that all of that, that was painful, but looking back on it, that was probably the best year we had in coaching in terms of learning about our program, where we need to go. Yeah, a bowl game is one of our big goals but we can't get to six until you get to five.
This rendition of the Vols has had plenty of nail-biting moments—against Georgia, South Carolina and even South Alabama. So, it isn't like they haven't been battle-tested.
For a senior class that includes some players who have seen four coaches, various position coaches and a few others who've never experienced a winning season, winning is the only acceptable conclusion.
When asked about the possibility of not making a bowl game, UT senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required):
Oh man, it's not an option. Our job as a senior class, we got together this year, and our main goal was to leave this place a better place than it was when we first came here. I always think about guys like Dan Williams and Wes Brown, the guys that played in front of me, the guys that showed me the ropes, that showed me the pride and tradition that comes with playing at the University of Tennessee. I think about that a lot these days.
Our main goal is to take it to these guys each of these last two weeks, 'cause this program deserves to be back in a bowl game. We understand that as a senior class, man, and we take tremendous pride in that.
It's an awful lot of pressure to carry on their shoulders. When the lights turn on and the Smokey gray jerseys go on, the Vols have to take that burden and channel it positively. If they do, there's still a chance the present can be a catalyst for the program's future.
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