Vols break into Top 25, still have much to prove
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
Even after moving back into the national rankings for the first time since the 2008 preseason poll, Tennessee still has a point to prove.
The 23rd-ranked Volunteers believe they can deliver that statement Saturday by ending their recent history of frustration against No. 18 Florida, which has beaten Tennessee seven consecutive times.
''I think people want to wait and see how we do against Florida,'' Tennessee defensive end Darrington Sentimore said. ''But I'm here to tell them that we're going to beat them.''
The Southeastern Conference matchup between Top 25 teams will be the backdrop for ESPN's ''College GameDay'' crew, which is coming to Knoxville for the first time since 2004.
Tennessee (2-0) leaped into the Top 25 following a 51-13 blowout of Football Championship Subdivision program Georgia State. This marks Tennessee's first ranking since the Vols opened the 2008 season 18th. The Vols dropped out of the poll after beginning that season with a 27-24 overtime loss to UCLA.
As good as Tennessee has looked in winning its first two games, the Vols also got off to a 2-0 start last year. They went on to finish 5-7 for their second straight losing season under Derek Dooley.
Tennessee opened the 2011 season with one-sided victories over an FCS program (Montana) and a Big East school that went on to win 10 games (Cincinnati). This year's team has double-digit wins over an Atlantic Coast Conference team (North Carolina State) and an FCS school.
Quarterback Tyler Bray has completed 73.8 percent of his passes for 643 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. Last year, he had completed 78.5 percent of his attempts for seven touchdowns and no interceptions through his first two games of the season.
The Vols' high hopes last season started to vanish with a 33-23 loss to Florida that exposed their flaws.
''We know this is going to be a big challenge,'' Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. ''It's going to be a big step for us as far as showing everybody what we're made of this year.''
Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter is particularly eager to get a shot at Florida.
After getting off to a fast start last year, Hunter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Florida and missed the rest of the season.
''I was real angry,'' Hunter said. ''I just wanted to get back (this) year, work hard and try to tear them up.''
Hunter caught eight passes for 146 yards against Georgia State and tied a school single-game record with three touchdown catches. He said the fact his injury came against Florida will give him extra motivation this week.
''It's the game I got hurt in, so I'm going to try to go all out and try to score as many touchdowns as I can for the team,'' Hunter said.
Bray and Hunter have helped Tennessee's passing game dominate its first two opponents. An improved offensive line has allowed only one sack so far. A rushing attack that managed just 2.8 yards per carry last year has averaged 4.6 yards per attempt this season, though the Vols still must get better in short-yardage situations.
The Vols' defense has produced five interceptions while giving up just one touchdown pass. Tennessee didn't allow Georgia State to reach the end zone until the final minute Saturday despite playing without injured starting linebackers Herman Lathers (shoulder) and Curt Maggitt (toe).
Dooley still sees areas where the Vols must improve.
''We didn't get the short yardage,'' Dooley said. ''We missed an extra point and field goal. Those stand out. They're pretty obvious. You like to be perfect. You need a clean game. Those rarely happen. There's always plenty to correct and get better at.''
The start of SEC competition should provide a clearer picture as to whether this Tennessee team actually is better than last year's version. A victory over Florida wouldn't merely snap a seven-game losing streak in this rivalry. It would allow Tennessee to match its entire SEC win total from last season.
It also could erase some of the skepticism that surrounds this team's fast start.
''I still think people want to see us win some more games so they can say Tennessee's back, you know?'' Sentimore said. ''I don't have a problem with that. We've got to prove them wrong. We've to create an identity so they'll say, `Yeah, they're back. That's the Tennessee we know.'"