Tennessee remains confident it can end recent tailspin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes his team is improving, even though the Volunteers’ record suggests otherwise.
After being ranked 25th to start the season, the Volunteers have blown two-touchdown leads in three of their last four games to fall below .500. Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 SEC) will try to avoid a third straight loss Saturday when it hosts No. 19 Georgia (4-1, 1-1).
”When you take the emotion out of it, I still see us improving as a football team,” Jones said. ”I still see us getting better week in and week out.”
There have been only 17 games all season in which a Football Bowl Subdivision team lost after leading by at least 13 points, according to STATS LLC. Tennessee has dropped three of them.
Tennessee grabbed a 17-0 advantage over Oklahoma in the first 18 minutes and still led 24-10 in the fourth quarter before falling 31-24 in overtime. The Vols lost 28-27 at Florida by allowing two touchdowns in the last five minutes. Tennessee led Arkansas 14-0 in the first quarter before falling 24-20.
”You really in these times find out who’s with you, who’s against you,” Jones said. ”You just write it down, you put it in your back pocket and you file it away for future reference. We’re going to be fine. We’ve got a resilient group of kids, and we’re going to continue to make progress and move forward.”
The tailspin leaves Tennessee needing to make a second-half surge for the second straight season. Last year, Tennessee started out 3-5 before winning four of its last five games to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
”No one’s going to give up,” junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. ”No one’s going to quit. It’s going to be fun seeing how this season ends (up), how the season turns out because there are a lot of people doubting us right now. All we’ve got are the guys in our room depending on each other. We’ll finish strong.”
Jones said when he’s checking to see whether a team has lost its edge or competitive character, he studies whether turnovers and penalties are rising and whether special-teams production and takeaways are dropping.
Tennessee ranks third in the SEC in turnover margin and has the third-fewest penalty yards in the conference. The Vols also have the SEC’s second-ranked punter (Trevor Daniel) and the nation’s second-ranked kickoff returner (Evan Berry), though kicker Aaron Medley has made just 61.5 percent of his field-goal attempts.
”The truth of the matter is we’re a good football team and we’ve lost to three very, very good opponents,” Jones said.
The recent history of the Georgia-Tennessee rivalry suggests Saturday’s game could come down to whether the Vols improve their fourth-quarter performance. Although Georgia has beaten Tennessee five straight times, each of the last two games in this series has been decided by only three points.
”It’s going to go down to the wire,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. ”It’s not going to be any different than in years past.”
NOTES: Tennessee defensive end Kyle Phillips has a shoulder injury that will prevent him from playing against Georgia. The Vols are hoping he can return for the Oct. 24 game at No. 8 Alabama. … Wide receiver Alton ”Pig” Howard’s status remains uncertain as he recovers from a concussion that has caused him to miss the last two games. … Wide receiver Marquez North is expected to return this week after missing the Arkansas game with lower back stiffness. … Tennessee plans to wear special alternate uniforms Saturday in a color that Nike describes as ”Smokey grey.” The Vols have worn gray uniforms twice before during Jones’ three-year tenure, in 2013 losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt.