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Three (Maybe Four) Factors That Could Put Tennessee Back in the College Football Playoff Conversation

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For whatever the reason, pride or a better bowl game, Tennessee defied cynics who claimed they couldn’t pick themselves up after last week’s disastrous loss to South Carolina and hammered Vanderbilt 56-0 on Saturday.

It was a much-needed reminder for some that this football team has a special soul, that they can overcome heart-breaking losses in multiple forms, mounting injuries and even an up-and-coming Vandy team in a steady rain, which doesn’t usually jive well with a passing offense like Tennessee’s.

The win also kept Tennessee in the College Football Playoff conversation. Really? Yes, really, thanks to some outside influences.

If there’s a crack in the top four, the Vols could slip in. They would have barged in had it not been for Tennessee’s 63-38 loss to the Gamecocks last week. If you want Tennessee to have a realistic shot to make the College Football Playoff, root hard against Southern California. The Trojans beat Notre Dame 38-27 on Saturday, but still have the Pac-12 Championship Game to play in. Southern California could lose that game and still have a strong argument to make the College Football Playoff since both USC and the Vols would have two losses. If the Trojans win, they’d have 12 wins, a conference championship and the Vols would almost assuredly be left out.

Here is what happened that affected the Vols in a very positive manner despite the Columbia Collapse:

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Ohio State lost big at home

This probably would have cleared the way for the Vols to make the College Football Playoff – almost assuredly. Michigan hammered Ohio State 45-23 in Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes could still get in after a shockingly bad loss, but don’t bet on it.

Although this has nothing to do with how the Vols handled their late season business, it had to be heart-breaking for former Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker to watch as Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud was manhandled by the Wolverines. Had things continued as they had for Hooker throughout the season, he would be Tennessee’s first Heisman Trophy winner. On Saturday, he was Tennessee’s most outstanding cheerleader.

“I just wanted to finish what we started,” Hooker said during the broadcast when asked why he was so involved throughout the game despite suffering the season-ending injury he suffered against the Gamecocks. “We started in January with a mission and we had to see that mission through. I just wanted to be here to encourage my brothers and watch them make plays as well.” 

As for Tennessee’s standing among college football’s elite, I’m well aware that Texas Christian rolled on, beating Iowa State 62-14 and are still undefeated, the Horned Frogs would only be a bump in the road had Tennessee held serve last week in Columbia. 

TCU and Tennessee would both have likely gotten in the College Football Playoff as long as Georgia wins the SEC Championship Game. That’s pretty simple. Now, if LSU were to win the conference title, things could have gotten iffy for the Vols, but LSU’s loss on Saturday precludes them from making the playoffs. We’ll get to that. 

Alabama rolled on

This may sound odd, but Alabama, which was ranked ahead of the Vols in the College Football Playoff last week at No. 7, chalking up a win can be viewed as a positive. That’s another quality win for the Vols and both teams have two losses. Alabama ranked higher last week, but how can the College Football Playoff committee put the Tide ahead of the Vols considering a head-to-head win?

Clemson stumbled

The Tigers were never going to surpass a one-loss Tennessee team, but if there were even an outside shot, South Carolina took care of that by beating the Tigers 31-30 on Saturday, much like they took care of the Vols. It’s worth noting that the Gamecocks should be commended for what they did in the final two weeks of the regular season. It’s also worth asking why South Carolina didn’t play better earlier in the season. I’ll let South Carolina’s administration figure that one out.

As far as Tennessee is concerned, Clemson is a non-factor to make the playoffs thanks to, strangely enough, the Gamecocks.

LSU fell flat

LSU has no chance to make the College Football Playoff even if they somehow beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. A 38-23 loss to Texas A&M will do that. The Tigers can’t get in with three losses.

So where does this all leave Tennessee? With a shot.

Let’s be clear: Tennessee still needs some help and, even with help, could be left out of the final four. However, to even be in the mix after last week is something that most never dreamt possible.

The Vols have been in this position before. Tennessee’s last national title – in 1998 – required some good fortune on the final weekend. UCLA and Kansas State both lost or the Vols may have never had a chance to beat Florida State in the first BCS national championship game.

Let’s all remember that Tennessee was predicted to win seven or eight games this season. Instead, they won 10 games for the first time since 2003 and will at least be in the conversation when the College Football Playoff committee meets after Championship Weekend. 

There were also two tradition-laden wins against Alabama and Florida. All that will sound good years from now, but now it will still sting if the Vols don’t make the College Football Playoff. However, there is a chance.

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