Are the Tennessee Vols a legitimate College Football Playoff contender?

It’s a fair question to ask since we’re a third of the way through the season and the Vols are firmly in the top 10 (UT is ranked No. 8 after being off this past Saturday).

While a lot of things will have to go right for Tennessee to surprisingly crash the playoff, they at least have a somewhat realistic path to making it happen.

If the Vols beat Alabama and only lose to Georgia the rest of the season, they’ll likely finish second in the SEC East. Then if Georgia loses to Alabama in the SEC Championship game, it would open the door (albeit slightly) for the Vols to make the playoff.

Tennessee could also just run the table the rest of the way, but the first scenario is much more realistic.

Tennessee Vols
Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) runs into the end zone during the second half of a game between the Tennessee Vols and Florida Gators, in Neyland Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Tennessee defeated Florida 38-33.
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247Sports, however, doesn’t believe either scenario is that realistic for the Vols as they labeled Tennessee a “pretender” when it comes to the playoff.

From 247Sports:

Show us what you got, Tennessee. The Vols remain undefeated and are in position to make a run to the playoff but a close call on the road at Pitt, with a backup quarterback losing to UT in overtime, and allowing Florida to climb back to within a score in Neyland Stadium, harkened bad memories of Vols past. The stats certainly show an improved team, particularly on defense. That atrocious third-down stoppage rate of last season (101st) is now tied for 16th at 71.7% and yet the pass defense is poor at 128th (309.3 yards per game).

Four of the next five games are more difficult than any the Vols had on the schedule in September, with trips to LSU and Georgia, and home games against Alabama and Kentucky, remaining. The Vols will need two wins against teams currently ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the polls — Alabama and Georgia — to reach the playoff. That means beating Alabama twice or Georgia once and Alabama once (in the SEC Championship). Good luck.

Oddly enough, 247Sports views a team below Tennessee in the AP Top 25 a bit differently.

They think No. 9 Ole Miss is a legitimate playoff contender.

From 247Sports:

Is Ole Miss really a darkhorse in the playoff race or a legitimate contender? Let’s go with legitimate contender after knocking off No. 7 Kentucky, even with the help of two turnovers late in the 22-19 victory. The remaining schedule includes only three ranked teams, and the biggest game is No. 1 Alabama in Oxford, and we just know how well Lane Kiffin prepares his teams for the Tide inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Ole Miss likely needs to run the table to advance to the SEC Championship, and if it does that it might be enough to land a spot in the playoff — even with a loss to Georgia in Atlanta. Ole Miss has jumped from 117th to 51st to 7th nationally in scoring defense since Kiffin’s arrival, and should that trend continue in the second half of the season, then the Rebels have a legitimate shot at reaching the SEC Championship Game for the first time in school history.

This might unnerve Tennessee fans, but it really shouldn’t. This has more to do with the Rebels’ potential path to the playoff.

The Vols still have to play Alabama and Georgia — the two best teams in the country. Ole Miss, however, only has to play one of those teams in the regular season — Alabama.

Removing that regular season matchup against Georgia, which would likely be a loss for the Rebels, gives Ole Miss a significant advantage over Tennessee when it comes to possibly making the playoff (though let’s be honest, it’s a longshot that either team makes it).

The fact we’re even having this conversation about the Vols speaks to the job that Heupel has done so far at UT. I don’t think anyone in the country expected us to be talking about Tennessee and the College Football Playoff in the same sentence this soon.

It just shows how big of a deal it is to make the right hire. Tennessee finally got it right and now the program is reaping the benefits.

Featured image via Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK