Derek Dooley's first season in Knoxville has been less than a dream season. The Vols are at 3-6, and they are the only team left not to have a conference win. The good news is that if you wanted to give UT a redemption scenario, you couldn't write a better one than what reality presents.
Tennessee's final three opponents are Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. Those teams have just three conference wins among them, and two of those wins (Vandy over Ole Miss; Ole Miss over Kentucky) are contained within that trio. Vanderbilt is the worst team of the three, and it is Tennessee's only road game left. The opportunity is there.
A loss would drop the Vols to 3-7 though, meaning they'd need the bowl shortage scenario to play out in order to go to the post season.
This year, there are 70 bowl slots total. Right now, 49 teams are bowl eligible. At least one more will become eligible thanks to the USF-Louisville game where both teams have five wins. It's not unreasonable to think that West Virginia (vs. Cincy), Illinois (vs. Minnesota), Kentucky (vs. Vandy), Iowa State (vs. Colorado), and Troy (vs. FIU) will all hit bowl eligibility this weekend. That leaves possibly 15 slots left after this weekend, with games like Texas Tech-Weber State and Georgia Tech-Duke left that will likely give teams at least their sixth wins.
In other words, it's not in Tennessee's best interest to lose this game. Tennessee would probably be one of the most attractive 5-7 teams should a bowl need to select one, but there's no guarantee it will come to that.
Not accounted for in the above, of course, is the fact that a Tennessee loss would make Ole Miss bowl eligibile under that same 5-7 criteria. The Rebels are sitting on four wins, and it's very much in their interest to win this weekend as well. After going to Knoxville, Ole Miss has a game at LSU followed by the Egg Bowl at home.
I can't imagine penciling in a win for Ole Miss over Les Miles's crew, though an upset there would align the "Houston Nutt wins games you don't expect him to" and "Les Miles loses games you don't expect him to" doctrines. The Rebels' chances in the Egg Bowl are a bit better, but Dan Mullen hammered a better Ole Miss team with a lesser State team last season. That game is certainly no guarantee either.
In short, this game's loser will have its post season hopes on life support. That should add a little more fire to the game most people just think of as the Manning Bowl.