Rocky Topics: Will Tennessee overcome two SEC losses to win SEC East?

This week on Rocky Topics, writers David Wilson and Luke Baird debate whether or Tennessee will finish the last half of the schedule strong by winning the SEC East.

Photo by Sumner Gilliam

Tennessee players Ethan Wolf and Alexis Johnson celebrate after the Battle at Bristol on Sept. 10, 2016. Photo by Sumner Gilliam.

Co-written by Luke Baird

Wilson: No. Though Tennessee only has two losses against high-profiled teams, the Vols still have to win out (with help) to advance to Atlanta in December. Florida currently leads the East with one loss, and the Gators have a decent chance to win out the rest of their schedule.

Florida plays LSU on the road. LSU has won the last three, but Florida is due for a win since neither school has won four straight in 15 years.

Florida also plays Florida State on the road in the last regular season game. While the Seminoles have won three straight over the Gators, they haven’t been able to find an identity all season, and Florida’s defense is allowing just 12 points per game. That should hold through the end of the season.

Baird: Yes. Tennessee is currently third in the SEC East behind Florida and Kentucky, respectively, yet the Volunteers’ schedule is more favorable than the two teams sitting in front of them in the standings.

Tennessee has five games remaining on the schedule — three of them in Neyland Stadium — and not a ranked team among them. The two biggest remaining games are at home against Kentucky and at Vanderbilt to end the season.

Florida, the biggest threat to Tennessee’s SEC East chances, has four quality opponents left to deal with. Two of those SEC games happen to be on the road: Arkansas and LSU will be tough environments for the Gators. The other tough SEC game left on the year for the Gators is being played this weekend against longtime rival Georgia Bulldogs at a neutral site in Jacksonville, Florida.

Kentucky, with five games remaining on the year, does not have the easiest trek to the SEC championship game. Of the Wildcats’ remaining five games, two SEC games in particular are going to be troublesome: at home against Georgia and at Tennessee. The Tennessee game is the most pivotal for the Wildcats. I don’t see Kentucky beating the Vols in Neyland Stadium because the Wildcats were handled 45-7 by a Florida team that lost 38-35 to the Vols earlier this season.

Wilson: I can understand the claim about the road game schedules remaining for Florida and Kentucky. However, Tennessee is going up against a rejuvenated South Carolina team. The Gamecocks’ head coach, Will Muschamp, gave the keys to freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who provided a new fire to the Gamecock offense. Under the lights on Saturday night, Williams-Brice Stadium is going to be rocking. Tennessee fans, watch out.

I wouldn’t count out Vanderbilt at the end of the season either. Vandy shocked the country by beating Georgia this past Saturday. It only makes the Hail Mary win at Georgia for the Vols look that much worse. Towards the end of the season, the ‘Dores could string together a couple wins for the hype game against Tennessee at the end of the season to cause trouble.

Tennessee is going to need too much towards the end of the season to make it to Atlanta in December.

Baird: A night game in Columbia against the Gamecocks will never be an easy task, but the Vols are the better team. South Carolina has lost four straight SEC games. Its lone conference win came against Vanderbilt in the first week of the season. Yes, freshman quarterback Jake Bentley had a nice debut last weekend, but it came against one-win University of Massachusetts team by six points. Tennessee’s defense will also receive a boost this weekend, as sophomore linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. will be back in the lineup. Kirkland had a promising start to his sophomore year, but was injured in the Battle of Bristol and has been out since.

Vanderbilt has shown plenty of improvement, which is why I think it will be a big game for the Volunteers. Vanderbilt’s offense, however, has struggled — it’s still ranked 120th in the nation in points per game. I think Tennessee wins this game because of timing. The game is the last game of the year for the Volunteers, and that means they will be healthier. NFL draft prospects Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara are on schedule to return to action in the next couple of weeks. Tennessee at near-full capacity is a tough team to handle, which is why the Vols were picked to win the SEC East before the season began.

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by Sumner Gilliam

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