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VOL. 131 | NO. 226 | Friday, November 11, 2016

Vols Hit Home Stretch With Chance for East Title

BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Be happy, Tennessee football fans. November is here, and the Vols (6-3, 2-3 SEC) still have a chance to win the East Division. It was hard to flush the 24-21 upset loss at South Carolina on Oct. 29, hard to explain star running back Jalen Hurd quitting UT’s team two days later and hard to get excited about last Saturday’s game against Tennessee Tech, which left Neyland Stadium with a 55-0 loss and a good paycheck.

John Kelly leaps for joy after a touchdown run against Tennessee Tech last week.

(Jerry Denham/The Ledger)

Thanks to happenings elsewhere, UT’s hopes for an East Division title were uplifted by late Saturday night.

Florida (6-2, 4-2) lost 31-10 at Arkansas, and Kentucky (5-4, 4-3) lost at home to Georgia, 27-24.

Tennessee can now win the East by winning its last three games – starting Saturday (noon) against Kentucky at Neyland Stadium – combined with Florida losing to either South Carolina on Saturday in Gainesville or at LSU on Nov. 19.

In that scenario, the Vols and Gators would both finish 5-3 in the SEC, and UT would win the tiebreaker due to its 38-28 win over Florida on Sept. 24.

The Vols opened as 14-point favorites to beat Kentucky and will be favored in the last two games at home against Missouri on Nov. 19 and at Vanderbilt on Nov. 26.

“This is exciting,” UT coach Butch Jones says. “This is an exciting week. We talk about playing meaningful games in November, and we’re playing three very, very meaningful games and it starts Saturday at noon.”

Kentucky has been good for the Vols, at least in football.

The Vols have won 30 of their last 31 games against Kentucky. The Wildcats beat Derek Dooley’s 2011 UT team 10-7 in Lexington when the Wildcats used a wide receiver (Matt Roark) at quarterback the entire game.

Jones is in his fourth season at Tennessee, and Mark Stoops is in his fourth season as Kentucky’s coach.

Jones and the Vols are 3-0 against Stoops and the Wildcats by a combined score of 129-51. Tennessee won 27-14 in 2013 in Lexington; 50-16 the next year at Neyland; and 52-21 last year in Lexington.

The Vols won’t be looking past Kentucky, though. Not after what happened at South Carolina.

“The way we approach it, the way we look at it, is we have three one-game seasons, and we’re looking to be 1-0 (Saturday), and all we can control is what we can control,” Jones explains.

“That’s our attitude, our mindset, our preparation, our toughness, our team chemistry, everything that goes into preparing to play your best football on Saturday at noon, so that doesn’t change.”

Jones says the Vols had their best week of preparation leading up to the Tennessee Tech game and played more inspired football than in previous weeks.

As an example, Jones pointed to John Kelly’s 73-yard touchdown run and the rest of the offense sprinting to the end zone for a celebration.

“Those are things getting back to having fun and playing with energy and the expectations we have here, so it was great to see,” Jones says.

It could be addition by subtraction with the loss of Hurd. He wanted to leave UT’s team last year but was talked into staying by family members. He issued his first statement Sunday about leaving the team and explained his reasons for transferring.

Among other things, the junior from Hendersonville’s Beech High School said he wants to play in an offense better suited to his skills as a traditional I-formation tailback, rather than UT’s spread offense.

“While I had hoped for scheme adjustments to suit my strengths, this did not happen on a consistent enough basis,” Hurd wrote. “This did have a factor in my decision as I want to play in an offensive scheme that highlights my abilities to run but also expands to allow me to show my abilities to catch the ball and be a mismatch for defenses.”

Hurd’s departure might have galvanized UT’s team, already decimated by injuries and other player departures.

Jones said the loss at South Carolina was a rude awakening for the Vols and was the reason for a re-energized team.

“I think our leadership started to assert themselves,” Jones says. “I think our players were very, very disappointed like all of us in our performance the previous week.”

Tennessee needed a confidence builder after the three-game losing streak, albeit against a sub-par FCS team.

It was what happened elsewhere that should give the Vols plenty of motivation for the last three games of the regular season. Their hopes for an SEC East title are alive.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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