No. 24 Vols say they still have plenty at stake this season
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee believes it has plenty of incentive for the rest of the season even though a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game has slipped from its grasp.
The 24th-ranked Volunteers were picked before the season to capture their first SEC Eastern Division title since 2007, but their hopes of making it to Atlanta vanished Saturday when Florida beat LSU 16-10 with a last-second goal-line stand. That victory allowed the 13th-ranked Gators to clinch the East and earn a spot in the Dec. 8 SEC championship game against No. 1 Alabama.
The Vols (8-3, 4-3 SEC) say they still have more at stake than mere state bragging rights Saturday when they visit Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) in their regular-season finale.
''This football team has a lot to play for – a lot,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
That includes the chase for a 10-win season, a goal that multiple players mentioned Saturday after the Vols' 63-37 victory over Missouri. Tennessee hasn't earned double-digit wins in a season since the 2007 team finished 10-4.
Tennessee also still has at least a possibility of making its first Sugar Bowl appearance since beating Virginia 23-22 on Jan. 1, 1991.
A Sugar Bowl bid goes to the highest-ranked SEC team in the final College Football Playoff rankings that isn't in the playoff. SEC teams in last week's CFP rankings included No. 1 Alabama, No. 15 Auburn, No. 16 LSU, No. 19 Tennessee, No. 23 Florida and No. 25 Texas A&M.
Tennessee has the most favorable remaining schedule of all those teams.
LSU probably will fall behind Tennessee this week after its loss to Florida. Auburn is a 17 +-point underdog Saturday at Alabama. Florida must visit Florida State this week before facing Alabama in the SEC championship game. Texas A&M is a 5 +-point underdog Thursday at LSU.
''We're playing for a good bowl game right now and a 10-win season,'' offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said after the Missouri game. ''So, there's still a lot left out there for us.''
Jones said he's convinced his players will remain motivated the rest of the way because he liked how they performed in the second half of the Missouri game. Jones assumed most players knew they were knocked out of the SEC East race by then, even though the staff hadn't informed them of the Florida-LSU result.
''I knew on the sideline that when they stopped showing the score up there (ono the scoreboard), something had gone wrong,'' Kendrick said. ''We're not going to hang our heads about it.''
Jones emphasized Monday that ''I want to make it clear that winning a championship is our No. 1 goal in our program year in and year out,'' but later in his press conference he referred to championships that didn't necessarily involve the division title.
First he mentioned that the Vols still could win a bowl championship this season. Later he praised his seniors by saying that ''they've won the biggest championship – and that's the championship of life.''
Jones noted the way Tennessee has withstood adversity all season. Injuries have forced Tennessee to use seven different starting combinations on the offensive line and nine different combinations in the starting secondary this season. The Vols lost their leading rusher nine games into the season when Jalen Hurd left the team . Linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Quart'e Sapp and defensive tackles Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie suffered season-ending injuries.
The injuries have extended to the coach himself. Jones told the Knoxville Quarterback Club on Monday afternoon that ''I blew out my knee'' before a Nov. 12 victory over Kentucky , though the injury hasn't necessitated that he wear a brace or crutches.
''I have never been through a season like this in 30-plus years of coaching in terms of the adversities, the injuries, the setbacks, the big wins. …. Our players have done a great job,'' Jones said. ''They have handled it exceptionally well. They have been individual champions.''
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