By Mark Nagi

When Butch Jones took over as Tennessee’s head coach following the 2012 season, the Vols went 5-7 and missed a bowl game.

When Jeremy Pruitt took over as Tennessee’s head coach following the 2017 season, the Vols went 5-7 and missed a bowl game.

Will Josh Heupel match those five wins, or will Tennessee get to at least the elusive six-win mark?

First, if it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t mean that this season is a bust. The Vols have shown a lot of improvement after 2020’s disastrous 3-7 campaign. The 2021 Vols are unquestionably better coached. They are 4-4 but could be 6-2 if a few plays went differently against Pittsburgh and Ole Miss, games lost by a single score.

The roster was decimated by transfers, with more than 30 leaving the team after the end of the 2020 season. But Heupel brought in a few players of his own and filled holes as best he could.

With four games left to play, Tennessee needs two more victories if they want to be busy in late December. This is a very young team and the extra practices that a bowl game would provide could pay dividends down the line.

So, let’s give these games a look.

On Saturday the Vols head to Kentucky to face a good Wildcats team.  Quarterback Will Nevis is going to be a problem for the Vols defense, as is Chris Rodriguez Jr., who is one of the best running backs in the SEC.

Tennessee used to beat Kentucky with minimal effort for decades. Losses to UK led to the eventual firings of Derek Dooley and Butch Jones and gave further proof that Jeremy Pruitt was not the right man for the job.

If the Vols lose to UK this time around, it doesn’t mean that Josh Heupel won’t make it as Tennessee’s head coach.

Next up the Vols will welcome top-ranked Georgia to Neyland Stadium. The Vols haven’t beaten the Bulldogs since 2016 and won’t snap that streak this time around. Georgia is the best team in college football with a flat-out scary defense.

Georgia hasn’t won the national championship since 1980 and if they don’t this season, they never will. The stars look like they are lining up for the Bulldogs. The Vols will try to put a crimp into those plans but it’s going to be a difficult day for UT. The Bulldogs simply have too much talent.

The Vols will finish the season with two home games. First against South Alabama on November 20 and then Vanderbilt on November 27.

South Alabama and Tennessee share a common opponent. Tennessee pounded Bowling Green 38-6 in the season opener while the Jaguars edged the Falcons 22-19 on September 11. The Vols should roll to a win in this one.

The same should be true in the finale against Vanderbilt. The Commodores are putrid. They barely beat UConn and sit at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.

Stranger things have happened, but unless Tennessee plays a bunch of kids from the intermural fields, they should win this game easily as well.

All of this means that at a minimum, the Vols should be 6-6, with 7-5 a possibility if they can beat Kentucky.

A bowl game would be quite the achievement for this team, and a sign that things are moving in the right direction.

Of course, making it to a bowl game isn’t a true barometer of future success. Derek Dooley’s Vols made it to a bowl game in his first season (2010), and he goes down in history as one of the worst head coaches in the history of college football.