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Is Tennessee a ‘Dark Horse’ in the SEC East?

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The Volunteers may well still win the SEC East.

NCAA Football: Tennessee Tech at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC East’s standings currently feature Florida (4-2 in conference), Kentucky (4-3), and Georgia (3-4) atop the divisional standings. The Gators are rightfully the odds-on favorite, as they hold a two-game edge with six conference games played and tie-breaking wins over their nearest competition.

For Kentucky to win, they would have to rely on Florida losses to South Carolina and LSU while simultaneously picking up a road win in Knoxville this Saturday. By all accounts, Florida sits in the driver’s seat.

Yet, there is a team lurking in the shadows. Tennessee is currently ranked fifth (2-3), and the turmoil around the team has justifiably called into question their motivation. Unlike their SEC East brethren ahead of them in the standings, the Volunteers have only played five conference games. They could potentially catapult up the standings, but they could also realistically move up based on their upcoming competition relative to Florida.

Kentucky

The Volunteers host the Wildcats Saturday, and are currently two-touchdown favorites. Kentucky is a plucky team in 2016 largely thanks to their elite ability to run the ball, and the defense’s ability to prevent explosive plays. This recipe proved effective against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Missouri: schools with a combined record of 6-16 in the SEC in 2016.

Tennessee, however, is a better team than those four squads. While Kentucky has the 8th best rushing offense - according to S&P+ - and will likely pick up yards on the ground Saturday, Tennessee has the 29th best defense overall. They will win their share of battles, but likely more so on passing downs where Kentucky’s offense is below average. Tennessee’s Havoc Rate will also cause issues for a Kentucky offensive line that has struggled at times this season, particularly on passing downs.

This goes without mentioning that Tennessee’s offense will likely have the edge on Kentucky’s defense despite the Wildcats’ improvement over the last month. Tennessee will probably average five yards per carry, which they’ll need as their aerial attack may struggle.

Kentucky probably covers the current point spread, but this is a game that Tennessee should win on paper.

Missouri

Next week, Tennessee hosts the Missouri Tigers. It’s been a tough season for the Missouri faithful. This game probably doesn’t require a breakdown. If Tennessee comes to play, they should win this game in all three phases.

Vanderbilt

The big rivalry game to end the season. This contest has been fairly competitive the last few seasons with the outcome determined by four, seven, and 25 points consecutively since 2013. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has continued to improve as the season has progressed, and are currently 6-3 against the spread this season, and they may build momentum the next two weeks in games against Missouri and Ole Miss.

Along with the Kentucky game, this matchup poses the biggest threat to Tennessee. The Commodores will be motivated, but the Volunteers will still be the superior team. It won’t be an easy game, but the odds are not daunting. Florida playing at 13th-ranked LSU is the tougher opponent.

Conclusion

Tennessee’s path to the SEC Championship rests on the amount of conference games they have remaining, as well as their level of competition relative to Florida. If the Gators drop one against LSU or South Carolina they will finish the season with a conference record of 5-3. If Tennessee wins out, they’ll finish with an identical record while also holding the tie-breaker over Florida.

The odds of Tennessee winning-out revolves around their abilities to gel as a team for the last month of the season. That’s a significant factor that can’t be quantified.