We’re officially a third of the way through the 2022 season and the Tennessee Vols are College Football Playoff contenders.

I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.

But it’s true. While a lot of things would have to go right for the Vols the rest of the season (like getting a win against Alabama or Georgia), Tennessee, for now, is at least in the conversation.

The Vols are the No. 8 ranked team in the nation and they could possibly break into the top five with a win against LSU on October 8 (UT has a bye week this Saturday).

There’s one fatal flaw, however, that Tennessee will have to overcome to sneak into the playoff this season.

ESPN’s Bill Connelly, who has the Vols with a 6.6 percent chance to make the playoff, says Tennessee’s pass defense is what could keep them out of the top four.

From ESPN:

Tennessee has survived interesting tests at Pitt and at home against a Florida team that had won 16 of the teams’ past 17 meetings. That Josh Heupel’s Volunteers are 4-0 is undeniably solid. They are controlling both lines of scrimmage nicely, scoring plenty of points against solid teams and posting obscene point totals against bad teams.

Their four opponents to date, however, have ranked between 77th and 112th in Total QBR. So when you see that the Vols’ defense is 85th in passing success rate allowed, 65th in completion rate allowed and 73rd in passing marginal explosiveness allowed, that should toss up a pretty big red flag. Over the next six weeks, this defense will face Kentucky’s Will Levis and three quarterbacks currently in the Total QBR top 15 (LSU’s Jayden Daniels, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Georgia’s Stetson Bennett). That’s scary, even considering Tennessee’s own prolific attack.

Tennessee Vols
Sep 24, 2022; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Florida Gators wide receiver Justin Shorter (4) catches a pass against Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Kamal Hadden (5) during the second half at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Those numbers that Connelly pointed out are undeniably concerning.

Tennessee has struggled against non-elite quarterbacks. And now they have a stretch of their schedule coming up that includes matchups against quarterbacks that are expected to play in the NFL in the near future. To be fair, I think Florida’s Anthony Richardson is a lot better than his advanced metrics suggest. But the quarterbacks coming up on the schedule are still going to be better than what UT has seen so far this season.

The Vols just gave up 453 passing yards to Richardson, who hadn’t passed for more than 168 yards in any of the Gators’ previous three games.

That’s a problem. And it’s one that Tennessee has to figure out if they’re going to make a run at the top five.

Unfortunately, I think this is probably a personnel problem, which means it won’t be fixed easily this season. We’re likely seeing defensive coordinator Tim Banks playing soft coverages because he doesn’t feel like his defensive backs can handle press-man coverage. As a result, the Vols are giving up lots of easy stuff on underneath routes.

That’s probably going to continue, which means quarterbacks will pick apart the middle of the field against Tennessee unless the Vols are able to generate a more consistent pass rush (the pressure has been decent, but it’ll have to be better against teams like LSU, Alabama, and Georgia).

It’s not a big deal if the Vols don’t get this fixed in 2022. No one expected this team to make a playoff run in Josh Heupel’s second season. Sure, it would be nice for Tennessee fans. But no one is going to say Heupel came up short of expectations if it doesn’t happen.

However, what an incredible story it would be if Heupel managed to get this team to Atlanta for the SEC Championship and then to the playoff. It’s a stretch, but the fact we’re even talking about it is a great sign for the future of Tennessee’s football program.

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Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports