On the surface, it seems obvious. Tennessee football has four circled wins and one likely win on the year, and it has three circled losses and three likely losses. In order to reach their goal of bowl eligibility, at least on the field, that would mean winning their only toss-up game, which is this weekend against the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Pitt is the only Power Five foe the Vols play this year that isn’t on the road and expects to have a winning record but not finish in the top 25. Although they are probably better right now under Pat Narduzzi, them playing in Neyland Stadium would seem to favor Rocky Top. As a result, this seems like a must-win game for UT. It isn’t.
Look, if everything goes as expected, Tennessee football will all but clinch a bowl berth with a win over Pitt. However, everything doesn’t go as expected, and there’s no way of knowing how things will shake out the rest of the year.
Assume, for a second, the Vols lose this game. They still have three opportunities to pull off an upset in likely losses. One of those games is at the Missouri Tigers, a team they beat 35-12 last year. Another is at the Kentucky Wildcats, a team they notoriously own, with the exception of last year, even if UK is better. UT also faces UK off a bye week this year.
Then there is their one likely but not circled loss at home, the Ole Miss Rebels. Sure, Ole Miss is far better this year in Lane Kiffin’s second year, but playing in Neyland could make things somewhat interesting. Simply put, it’s not all a complete loss if the Vols lose this game.
Now, you may wonder how UT could beat any of those teams if they can’t beat Pitt at home. However, anybody who saw last week’s opener against the Bowling Green Falcons realizes that the Vols haven’t fully grasped Josh Heupel’s offense yet. They still won’t have it down this game.
That’ll be different by the time October arrives, and as we mentioned, they’re playing Kentucky off a bye. Those two face off in November. If Tennessee football hasn’t picked up a significant portion of the offense by then, the program has way bigger problems under Heupel.
Of course, the reverse is true too. If the Vols beat Pitt, that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed a bowl. They would still have to beat the South Carolina Gamecocks, the one likely win on their schedule since that game is at home. There’s no reason to bank on that happening, though.
Beating Pitt gets UT to five sure wins. They already beat BGSU and will win their other non-Power Five games against the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles and South Alabama Jaguars while also beating the Vanderbilt Commodores to close out the season. It doesn’t guarantee six wins, though.
Still, with three opportunities to make up for a Pitt loss and only one chance of canceling out a win, beating Pitt helps Tennessee football much more than losing hurts them. That’s the good news for the Vols. The sky won’t fall if they lose this game.