Unless the Volunteers (4-6, 1-5 SEC) win the rest of their games, they will have losing records in four straight years for the first time since 1903-06.
If Tennessee wins Nov. 23 against Vanderbilt (5-4, 2-4) and Nov. 30 at Kentucky (2-7, 0-5), it would become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. That gives Tennessee incentive for the rest of the season.
"Getting to a bowl game is our team goal, and it is crucial," Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said Saturday after the Vols fell 55-23 to Auburn for their third straight loss. "It is crucial for us to get the senior class to a bowl game because they deserve that. We are working hard every day to accomplish that goal. We have two games to go and do it."
Getting to a bowl game and avoiding a losing season would provide a sense of stability to a program marked by recent unrest.
Butch Jones is Tennessee's fourth head coach in six seasons, and that total doesn't include Jim Chaney, who served as interim coach for the Vols' 2012 season finale. The Vols haven't won more than seven games in a season since going 10-4 and reaching the SEC championship game in 2007.
That represents a steep fall for a program that won at least eight games for 16 consecutive seasons from 1989-2004 and posted double-digit wins in nine of those years. After the Auburn game, Jones spoke at length about his desire to return Tennessee to that level of success.
"I believe in Tennessee football," Jones said. "I believe in our fan base. I gave up a lot to come here because I want to be a part of building something special and having that responsibility of bringing Tennessee football back. I love Tennessee. Our pride and passion for this place drives us every day in recruiting, in developing our players. And if it kills me, it kills me. I'm going to put everything I have in it to get Tennessee football back."
The Vols have maintained that sense of urgency this week.
Senior offensive guard Zach Fulton said the Vols had a players meeting Monday in which the upper classmen discussed the benefits of earning a bowl bid. The Vols also stressed the importance of avenging last year's 41-18 loss to Vanderbilt.
"This is the biggest game of our careers, of our football careers in general," senior defensive end Corey Miller said Tuesday. "It's do or die. It's time to make your statement as the team in Tennessee, to take over and keep moving forward as a football team. This is going to be the biggest game we've ever played."
Tennessee believes it should benefit from having a week off to prepare for these last two games. The Vols' best performance — a 23-21 victory over No. 11 South Carolina — followed their first off week.
The Vols have shown signs of wearing down after facing seven ranked opponents in an eight-game stretch. Before beating South Carolina, Tennessee lost 34-31 in overtime to No. 25 Georgia, ranked sixth at the time. But over its last three games, Tennessee has been outscored 131-36 by top-ranked Alabama, No. 9 Missouri and No. 7 Auburn.
"We've just got to play with energy and intensity — and not emotion," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "Emotion goes up and down. You know when you play with energy and intensity it stays steady and rises throughout the game. But when you play with emotion, it's always a roller coaster. We've just got to get it back. You could feel the intensity in the air when we play Georgia and South Carolina, and the last couple of weeks it really hasn't felt the same, but we've got to get it back."
Sapp, a senior, hasn't been part of a winning season at Tennessee and hasn't experienced a postseason game since Tennessee's Music City Bowl appearance his freshman year. The Vols want to make sure Sapp and his classmates go out on a winning note.
"For all the momentum that Coach Jones has created this year, it would be a shame (for) every single senior to let him go out without a bowl game this year," senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "We've got to treat this week as if it's Game 7 of the finals."