The term “must-win game” is used far too often in sports.
In reality, no game is a must-win in the sense that if a team loses it quits playing.
Some games can be a must-win for coaches on the proverbial hot seat or must-wins if a team wants to make a bowl game.
(Note: Derek Dooley is NOT on the hot seat and wouldn’t be until 2013, his fourth year at Tennessee, at the earliest. It only creates unwarranted discussion and controversy among a UT fan base that needs to understand the situation Dooley inherited and realize it’s not a quick-fix).
That said: The Volunteers really, really, really need to beat Vanderbilt Saturday night in Neyland Stadium.
A loss to a favored Commodores team at home — that’s not a typo — would ensure Tennessee its second consecutive losing season for the first time in a century. UT went 3-5-1 in 1910 and 3-4-2 in 1911.
Let that sink in. It’s been 100 years since the Vols had back-to-back losing seasons.
A win by Vandy would also make it bowl eligible for just the fifth time in the program’s history.
More, first-year VU coach James Franklin would gain even more momentum on UT for a school that’s been the doormat of the SEC for decades.
Fair or not, a win by the ’Dores would give the impression that Vandy is closer to Tennessee than the Vols are to Alabama, Florida, Georgia or even South Carolina in terms of the SEC pecking order.
If Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter had been healthy all year and UT were sitting in the position it’s in now, or if next year Vanderbilt is favored over the Vols, that’d be a serious cause for concern.
In reality, Dooley and UT had little margin for error this season. Any realistic hopes of upsetting a quality SEC team or two and maybe sneaking into the SEC Championship game went down with Hunter’s knee at Florida. Bray’s broken thumb against Georgia sent the Big Orange Nation into depression.
After everything this fan base has been through in recent years, and not just on the football field, could it get any worse?
Would losing on Saturday be the lowest point in the football program’s history?
One could certainly argue it would be.
That’s why it’s as close to a must-win game for UT as it could be without truly being a must-win game.
Even if the Vols don’t beat — or upset in this case — the Commodores, they’ll still travel to Lexington, Ky., next Saturday and beat the Wildcats for the 27th consecutive time.
But Tennessee certainly can’t overlook Vanderbilt, especially this year.
Saturday’s game has as many implications in terms of this season and going forward for both programs as any UT-Vandy game in recent memory.
Regardless of the outcome in the final game at Neyland Stadium this year, the Big Orange Nation needs to rely on the watering of the bamboo and the feeding of the orange dog. And most of all, trusting the hair and orange pants of the Vols’ head coach.
At the end of the day, it’s still Tennessee football. Losing isn’t well received by this fan base, as it shouldn’t be. Back-to-back sub-.500 records only come around every century or so. Maybe even longer.