Originally written on Checkerboard Chatter  |  Last updated 11/23/11

There are many things to be thankful for in 2011 if you are a fan of the Tennessee Volunteers.  This post is a football related entry so I'll make my basketball thoughts brief.  After the first four games of the Cuonzo Martin era, I am thankful that he and his staff are working for the University of Tennessee.  He is clearly maximizing the ability of his players, and I am eager to watch the Vols get into the SEC portion of their schedule.  Now let's segway back to football.  The three things I am most thankful for this season are (in no particular order) 1.) the non-conference schedule 2.) Vanderbilt 3.) Kentucky. 

I, like many others, was critical of the decision to buyout the North Carolina game.  My ire was only intensified after last year's Music City Bowl.  A crack at UNC to avenge that debacle is an enticing thought, but the Buffalo game was probably a better serving match-up for this season.  In fact, Montana, Cincy, MTSU and Buffalo were perfect opponents for the Vols this season.  Also, annual whipping boys, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, are a sight for sore eyes because the Vols have had an absolutely BRUTAL SEC Conference schedule in 2011.  In September, I wrote that the Vols' climb back to greatness is being hampered by the fact that the Vols are playing in the "Golden Age" of the SEC.  This past week's BCS standings only strengthen that argument.  Of the Vols' six SEC losses, five of them have come to teams ranked in the top 13 of the current BCS standings, and three of the losses are to the top three teams! (See below for standings.)  The sixth loss was against a Florida team that is obviously bad by Florida standards.  In defense of the Vols however, the game was in the Swamp (where the Vols never seem to play all that well), and the Vols lost their best offensive player in Justin Hunter only a few snaps into the game.  All in all, it hasn't been the kindest of SEC schedules.

 BCS standings:

1.)  LSU, 2.) Alabama, 3.) Arkansas, 12.) South Carolina, 13.) Georgia

You can also look at it this way; UT has played the toughest teams from the SEC West, a trio that no other SEC East school was forced to play.  Here's a breakdown of each SEC East school's schedule vs. the West.

Georgia - Ole Miss, Miss. St., Auburn

South Carolina - Auburn, Miss. St., Arkansas

Florida - Alabama, LSU, Auburn

Vanderbilt - Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas

Kentucky - LSU, Miss St., Ole Miss

Tennessee - Alabama, LSU, Arkansas - NEWSFLASH - TOP 3 BCS SCHOOLS

Clearly, Georgia is the class of the SEC East, but how awesome would it have been to be able to trade the rotational games of LSU and Arkansas for Ole Miss and Mississippi State?  I know why Mark Richt was smooching on his wife after the Dawgs clinched the SEC East.  He was clearly thankful he had Ole Miss and Mississippi State on his schedule. 

So what's the point of this exercise?  Am I making excuses for Tennessee due to the teams they had to play in conference?  Don't all SEC teams in theory have tough schedules?  Am I inviting everyone to a pity party for the Vols?  No, that's not it at all so here goes.  As Derek Lusk wrote here, the Vols have lost the games they were supposed to lose this year, and they have won the games they were supposed to win.  If they keep their epic streak alive vs. Kentucky this Saturday, the Vols will go bowling.  Coming into the season 6-6 was a very common prediction for this team, and that was with a healthy Lathers, Hunter and Bray.  Also, most of those .500 predictions included Janzen Jackson.  The Vols have had their share of misfortune.  To be balanced in this post, there have also been coaching miscues and mistakes along the way, but Derek Dooley has proved himself to deserve adequate time to turn this thing around. 

Let's hope next year we are thankful for a team that's in the running for the SEC title.  After all, I believe LSU rotates out, and Mississippi State rotates in.  That's something all Big Orange zealots should be thankful for.

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