Tennessee believing that its goals remain within reach
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A rare win over a ranked opponent has Tennessee believing it still has a chance of getting to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
That goal seemed out of reach after Tennessee dropped its first two SEC games, but events on and off the field have given the Volunteers new life.
First Tennessee (3-3, 1-2 SEC) erased a 21-point deficit Saturday in a 38-31 victory over Georgia, which was ranked 19th at the time. Then Georgia (4-2, 1-2) announced star running back Nick Chubb would miss the rest of the season with an injured left knee and No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0) lost quarterback Will Grier to a one-year suspension for violating the NCAA’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
”It definitely presents a little bit of hope for us,” senior safety Brian Randolph said. ”That’s one of our main goals, to win the SEC East and get to the championship. We still have a chance for that. (With) Grier, it’s very unfortunate, but it does kind of leave the door open for us.”
The door’s not open very wide. Tennessee already fell to Florida this season and faces the realistic possibility of suffering a third conference loss Oct. 25 when it visits No. 10 Alabama (5-1, 2-1) in its next game.
But the Vols still enter their off week confident that they’ve recovered from the blown leads and close losses that marked the first half of their season.
Ranked 25th at the start of the season, Tennessee dropped three of its first five games and blew two-touchdown leads in each of its three losses. In a reversal of fortune, Tennessee ended its slide against Georgia by pulling off the third-biggest comeback in school history. The victory over Georgia marked just the second time Tennessee had beaten a Top 25 team in its last 30 attempts.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones insists the victory hasn’t changed his team’s approach.
”It’s been the same,” Jones said. ”It’s been business as usual. Obviously there’s no substitute for winning. There’s no substitute for positivity. Our players gained a lot of confidence. They had a lot of energy yesterday. I thought they were excited to come to meetings. I liked their approach. But for us, it goes back to business as usual.”
His players had a different take on it. Randolph said ”it’s easier to sleep at night” after a win and that the result had produced a ”different atmosphere” around the team facility and in the classroom.
”We’re just taking the momentum and we’re going to carry it over to practice, making sure we do everything we need to go do to prepare for next game,” senior safety LaDarrell McNeil said.
Jones said the off week comes at a convenient time as Tennessee attempts to evaluate its personnel heading into the second half of the season.
A team that has dealt with plenty of injuries all season lost one more player last week when defensive tackle Shy Tuttle broke his fibula and tore an ankle ligament, knocking him out for the remainder of the year. Jones noted the Vols must tackle better and force more turnovers.
As much of a boost as they received from the win over Georgia, the Vols realize they still have plenty of work ahead.
”We’ve got a lot of football left to play,” Randolph said. ”We can’t hang our hat on this one too long.”
NOTES: Jones spent part of his press conference paying tribute to Steve Spurrier, who stepped down as South Carolina’s coach Tuesday. Jones called Spurrier a ”living legend” and said he grew up a big fan of the Tampa Bay Bandits, the USFL team that Spurrier coached in the 1980s. ”Every time we get together, we talk about Bandit ball, we talk about those days,” Jones said. … Jones opened his press conference by referencing Chubb and saying that he wants ”to wish him well in his road to recovery.”
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