Vols Unlikely to Repeat November 2013 Collapse

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

KNOXVILLE – University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones doesn’t have to remind his team about the disappointing fade last November.

UT went 0-3 to start what has historically been its best month of football. First, the Vols lost to Missouri and Auburn. Then a 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt in Neyland Stadium knocked the Vols out of bowl eligibility.

There was some salvation in a 27-14 victory at Kentucky to end the season, but not much. It’s hard to celebrate when a series is so lopsided in favor of the Vols.

UT (4-5, 1-4 SEC) starts this November in far different fashion. The stunning comeback two Saturdays ago at South Carolina gives the Vols momentum for a three-game stretch run to end the regular season.

They need two victories in three games for a bowl bid, and Kentucky (5-5, 2-5) is a prime target for one of them Saturday (4 p.m. ET) at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones celebrates with his team after an NCAA college football game against South Carolina in Columbia, S.C.,  Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Tennessee won 45-42.

(AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

The Wildcats are in free fall after a promising 5-1 start that included victories against Tennessee-Martin, Ohio, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe.

Kentucky has lost its last four games and bottomed out with a 63-31 loss Saturday at home against Georgia.

“Very embarrassing effort by our team, our coaching staff, starting with myself,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after the game. “Not acceptable.”

Not for Stoops, who was Florida State’s defensive coordinator from 2010-12 before being hired as Kentucky’s coach.

Kentucky’s defense against Georgia was all-time bad. Georgia had 11 offensive possessions and scored touchdowns on nine of them. The other two ended when the clock ran out at halftime and at the end of the game.

You could say the SEC grind has caught up with the Wildcats, whose losses before Georgia were to LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri.

Jones says he doesn’t know if that’s the case or not.

“I don’t see their players every day,” Jones says. “I’m sure they have a great handle on it. All I can speak for is us, and this conference is a grind, not only physically, but mentally as well, and then everywhere you go on the road, you’re playing in hostile environments.

“This is a conference that’s unyielding. It’s relentless with everything that you do, and it does take a toll on your football team.”

Jones saw the toll in games leading up to Saturday’s open date. Before the victory at South Carolina, the Vols lost SEC games to Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss, and Alabama with a win over FCS team Chattanooga during that stretch.

After Saturday, the Vols finish the regular season at home against Missouri (7-2, 4-1 SEC) and at Vanderbilt (3-7, 0-6).

UT is in bowl position.

“Now, the more you win, the more that’s at stake, so what do you do?” Jones asks. “Does that drive you more? Are you satisfied with it? Last year, I believe we got satisfied at times, and there was nothing to be satisfied for, where now we’ve put ourselves in position for a postseason opportunity. Go take advantage of it.

“But I have to go back to ‘Power of One.’ Before you can get anywhere, it starts with getting victory No. 5, and we’re playing a (Kentucky) team that comes in, there’s no mistake about it, we all know they’re fighting for the same thing we’re fighting for.

“So again, it comes down to execution, playing our style of play, and having a mentality, but execution is the biggest thing, and I know Coach Stoops is telling his team the same thing.”

Kentucky’s last bowl game was in 2010, the BBVA Compass Bowl (now the Birmingham Bowl). The Wildcats can become bowl eligible this year by beating the Vols or winning at Louisville in the regular-season finale.

History is on UT’s side.

The Vols have won 14 consecutive games against UK at Neyland Stadium and 29 of the last 30 in the series.

Jones says he noticed a bounce in his players’ step during workouts before last Saturday’s open date.

Certainly the win at South Carolina had a lot to do with it. Also, November is here. Kentucky is coming to town. There is plenty of optimism.

“(The players) understand what’s at stake,” Jones adds.

“They’re looking forward to playing at home, but you put yourself in position to play meaningful games in November, and there’s a lot that this team is playing for. I’ve liked their approach, but I’ve liked their approach all year.”

Key matchups
Dobbs vs. ’Cats’ ‘D’:
By now, UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs is no secret, nor is Kentucky’s sieve-like defense.

Dobbs ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina and threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns.

Kentucky looks like an easy target for Dobbs and the Vols.

Georgia’s Hutson Mason was 13 of 16 passing for 174 yards and four touchdowns against the Wildcats. The Bulldogs were without its best offensive player, suspended running back Todd Gurley, and still rushed for 305 yards (7.8 yards per carry).

Those results put the Cats 12th in the SEC in scoring defense (28.1 ppg), eighth in pass defense (190.3 yards per game) and 13th in rush defense (200.2 yards).

Georgia’s 63 points against Kentucky was the most allowed in Stoops’ two seasons and the most the Bulldogs have scored since 1942. Georgia ran 60 offensive plays, and 21 of them went for 10 yards or more.

“Defensively, it’s an older, veteran group up front, and [they] have done a good job,” Jones says of Kentucky’s defense. “They (were) down by seven to the No. 1 team in the country (Mississippi State) entering the fourth quarter (before losing 45-31). Again, they have improved their speed in the back end. They are plus-eight in turnover margin.”

Towles vs. UT’s Secondary: UT again faces a dual-threat quarterback in Kentucky sophomore Patrick Towles (6-foot-5, 238 pounds).

Towles has completed 58.6 percent of his passes this season for 2,374 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s rushed for 264 net yards (he’s got 212 minus yards).

Kentucky is fifth in the SEC in passing yards per game (243).

Jones recruited Towles while he was coach at Cincinnati.

“You start with them offensively, very, very explosive, up-tempo,” Jones explains. “Everything starts with the quarterback, Patrick Towles. (I) know all about him. Even though he is from Kentucky, he is from Highlands, but that is right across the river in Cincinnati. So we were involved with recruiting him. He is a winner. He has won numerous state championships. So it is going to be a great challenge for us.”

UT O-Line vs. Wildcats’ Pressure: UT’s offensive line didn’t give up a sack against South Carolina and had two in its previous game, a 34-20 loss at Alabama when Dobbs came in after two series.

In their first seven games, the Vols gave up 30 sacks. No doubt Dobbs’ scrambling ability helps the offensive line, but Jones also likes the unit’s progress.

“Anytime you can have the threat of a running quarterback, that changes the dynamics up front, from the defense being gap conscious, being able to account for the quarterback,” Jones says. “I think the offensive line has continued to be a work in progress.”

Notable notes
Dobbs Critiqued: Dobbs was showered with national acclaim for his performance against South Carolina as the Vols rallied from a 14-point deficit with 4:52 left in the game.

Still, Jones still sees room for improvement from the sophomore.

“Needs to work on (consistency),” Jones points out. “Not what we needed. And again, it’s easy to write things up when you watch a game or two, but we see it every day in practice. There’s a lot different. Josh knows it. For us to be successful, he has to play with great consistency, day in and day out. That’s the biggest challenge, and he understands it.”

Smith Scoped: Sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith had arthroscopic surgery on his ankle during the open date week. The former Christian Academy of Knoxville star suffered a high ankle sprain Sept. 13 at Oklahoma and has been out since then.

UT will seek a medical redshirt season for Smith.

Jones said the procedure revealed nothing more than the high ankle sprain, and was done to help Smith’s recovery.

“There’s kind of a new procedure that they’ve been doing to try to take care of that and tighten up the ankle,” Jones said. “We felt like we needed to do that to get (Smith) back for spring football. Josh means so much to us, not just because he’s a good football player, but he’s tough. He brings a whole other element. He brings an identity. He brings a personality to our football team.”

Family Time: Jones spent much of Saturday’s open date watching football along with family: wife Barb and three sons, Alex, Adam and Andrew.

At one point, Jones thought his family might be a little too into football.

“I kind of think we’re a messed-up family,” Jones says. “We’re at a great restaurant Saturday night, sport coat required. I had Barb and the boys, and I think there was a no-cell phone policy, and I look down, and the whole family’s got their cell phones on getting score updates.

“Your family gets conditioned for football season, a lot of friends across the country who compete, and you’re thinking of your football team and all that, so when you have a bye week, you want to take advantage and watch other people play and maybe not have the stress that a normal Saturday would bring about.”

Fan Time: Jones wants to see another sellout for Kentucky.

“We are going to need all of the 102,455 (fans),” he says. “I believe it will be our fourth sellout, which is amazing. The fan base has been outstanding, the student body, and we are going to need it at 4 o’clock to make Neyland another great home-field advantage for us.”

Lil’ John Practice: Rapper Lil Jon was at the Vols’ practice last Sunday and met with Jones and the players.

Lil Jon’s hit song, “Turn Down For What,” has been adopted at Neyland Stadium and turned into a chant, “Third Down for What,” when UT’s opponents face a third down. It’s become wildly popular with Vol fans.

“It was great to have (Lil Jon) at practice,” Jones says. “I know our players enjoyed that. That’s the power of Tennessee. He is in town and wanted to come over and be a part of practice and all of that. It was great to see. The first thing he said to me is, ‘I can’t believe practice. It’s chaos.’ I said, ‘It’s controlled chaos.’”

Wildcats’ Last UT Win: UT fans won’t forget this one. It was Nov. 26, 2011, in Lexington.

Kentucky was without its top two quarterbacks (injured Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton), so then-Wildcats coach Joker Phillips inserted wide receiver Matt Roark as a wildcat-like quarterback.

Roark rushed for 124 yards on 24 carries as Kentucky beat UT 10-7 and ended a 26-game losing streak in the series. The loss ended the Vols’ hopes of going to a bowl game.

UT (5-7, 1-7 SEC) was in its third season under Derek Dooley. Dooley was fired after his 2012 team finished 5-7, 1-7 in the SEC; Phillips was also fired after 2012, when his team went 1-9, 0-7 in the SEC.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.