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.
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.
3 matchups to watch
Snell/Williams vs. Vols front 7
Tennessee’s defense has struggled against the run this year and will get a good test from the Wildcats.
Kentucky rushed for 186 yards against Georgia – the most the Bulldogs have allowed on the ground to any team this year.
The Wildcats rank fifth in the SEC in rushing offense (215.8 yards per game) and often feature a “wildcat” package with a running back taking the direct snap on a rushing play.
Freshman tailback Benny Snell got his first start against Georgia and ran for 114 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, a 5.4-yard average.
Snell’s third-quarter touchdown run of 1-yard gave him 10 TDs this season, breaking Kentucky’s freshman record for touchdowns of nine set by Randall Cobb in 2008. Cobb, who played at Alcoa High School, now plays for the Green Bay Packers.
UK’s other back is junior Stanley “Boom” Williams, who ran for 77 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries (5.5-yard average) against Georgia after starting the first eight games.
Williams, whose 2,239 career rushing yards ranks seventh in program history, leads the Wildcats this year with 898 yards on 123 carries, a 7.3-yard average, and four rushing touchdowns.
Snell has 775 rushing yards on 139 carries, a 5.6-yard average.
“We have to eliminate the big plays and (Kentucky does a) great job with that,” Jones said. “They’re very patient with the run game and their running backs are very capable of getting through a hole, and they can make you wiggle and they can make the second or third level defenders miss.”
Tennessee gave up 438 yards on the ground in the 49-10 loss to Alabama and 158 in the loss to South Carolina.
Tennessee is eighth in the SEC in rushing defense (191.7 yards allowed per game) after holding Tennessee Tech to 60 yards last Saturday.
“I think we took some strides in moving forward (with the run defense), and when you look at it, we’ve been very good defensively at taking the run away,” Jones explained.
“Where we’ve lacked and where we have to continue to get better is (stopping) explosive runs. We’ll hold an opponent to about 2.3 yards per average, and all of a sudden we give up a 20-yard run or a 30-yard run. When we give up explosive plays, they’re big plays, and we can’t have that.”
Dobbs vs. ’Cats’ secondary
UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs bounced back from a bad game against South Carolina (12-of-26, two interceptions) by completing 12-of-13 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee Tech before leaving the game for good in the second quarter.
Sure, Tech is a far inferior FCS team, but Dobbs might have a hard time completing 12-of-13 against the Vols’ practice squad. And his passes against Tech were right on target, hitting receivers in stride instead of throwing behind them or over their heads.
One reason for his success against Tech was lack of pressure from the Golden Eagles’ front, so the Vols’ O-line must be up to the task of pass protection against Kentucky.
The Wildcats are ninth in the SEC in pass defense (227.0 yards allowed per game) and the Vols are sixth in passing offense (224.8).
Dobbs has put up big numbers in his three games against Kentucky. He’s rushed for 151 total yards (50.3 yards per game) and four touchdowns and passed for 729 yards (243 per game) with seven touchdowns and two interceptions in the three games against the Wildcats.
Johnson vs. Vols’ secondary
Dual-threat quarterback Stephen Johnson II has moved into the starting job at quarterback in place of Drew Barker, who started the first three games before sustaining a back injury early in the Sept. 17 win over New Mexico State.
Johnson is 4-2 as the starter with victories against South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri and losses to Alabama and Georgia.
Johnson, of Rancho Cucamonga, California, played his freshman season at Grambling and sophomore season at College of the Desert, where he threw for 3,210 yards and led the Southern California Football Association in passing yards per game (321.0) and touchdown passes (34).
It hasn’t been as fruitful for Johnson this year, but that’s life in the SEC.
Johnson is completing 56 percent of his passes (93-of-166) for 1,231 yards and has seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
Kentucky is 12th in the SEC in passing offense (174.6 yards per game) and Tennessee is fifth in passing defense (200.9).
“I think (Johnson) can make plays with his legs as well as his arm, so he’s talented,” Jones notes. “Everyone talks about the Wildcats’ offense, and they do a great job with that, and it’s just a sense of physicality they play with.”
5 things to watch
UT sophomore John Kelly quickly has emerged as a team and fan favorite.
With junior tailback Alvin Kamara out with the knee injury sustained against Alabama, Kelly got his first start against Tennessee Tech and rushed for 104 yards on seven carries and a touchdown. His 73-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was the longest run by a UT player since LaMarcus Coker’s 87-yard touchdown run against Vanderbilt in 2006.
The 5-foot-9, 212-pound sophomore is known for his hard-nosed running, and he says Kamara has mentored him since he arrived on campus. Likewise, teammates have spoken highly of Kelly, who’s rushed for 313 yards and three touchdowns with a 7.8-yard average.
Freshmen Jeremy Lewis (38 yards vs. Tech) and Carlin Fils-aime (27 yards) will get carries until Kamara is ready.
Twin brothers Evan and Elliott Berry, whose brother Eric plays for the Kansas City, both started against Tennessee Tech with Evan at free safety and Elliott at linebacker.
Evan, however, will miss the rest of the season due to a knee injury sustained in the game.
Elliott Berry got the start alongside Darrin Kirkland Jr. at the other linebacker spot. Kirkland was out with an ankle injury sustained in the second game against Virginia Tech.
“We’ll see a little more how this week goes who is the other linebacker besides Darrin,” Jones added.
Jones said Kamara and All-SEC cornerback Cam Sutton could play against Kentucky. Both practiced Monday.
Sutton suffered a broken bone in his ankle in UT’s 28-19 win over Ohio on Sept. 17. Kamara’s return would also bolster the special teams; he was leading the SEC in punt returns at the time of his injury.
“I would say right now Alvin’s probably a little bit ahead of Cam, but both individuals are going to be out at practice and we’re really excited about that,” Jones said.
Senior cornerback Malik Foreman missed his third consecutive game since hurting his shoulder in the double-overtime loss to Texas A&M.
Warrior at safety
True freshman Nigel Warrior will contend for a starter’s role at safety. He’s the son of former UT All-American and NFL defensive back Dale Carter.
“I’ve been really, really pleased with the progression of Nigel Warrior,” Jones notes. “He has great, great closing speed, very, very physical in his tackling. He can make the one-on-one tackles.
“I think the thing with him is the overall comfort level of him with the entire defense scheme and package that we have. You can see the game changes with him back there at safety. We’re very, very excited about him.”
Warrior has 14 total tackles in the past three games, including seven against Tennessee Tech (six solo, one assist).
Johnson and Badet
Johnson’s top two targets are juniors Garrett Johnson and Jeff Badet.
Johnson, the team’s leading receiver last year with 694 yards, has the team-high 27 catches for 339 yards and two touchdowns this year, averaging 12.6 yards per catch.
Badet has 22 catches for 530 yards and four touchdowns with an average of 24.1 yards per catch. He has catches of 72 yards (touchdown), 45 yards, 54 yards, 44 yards (touchdown) and 65 yards (touchdown) this year.
“They have big-play wideouts, tall, but also athletic, quick-twitch receivers that can make plays in the screen game,” Jones says. “They can throw the vertical ball.”
High fives, chest bumps
Jones encouraged his players before the Tennessee Tech game to celebrate success with high fives and chest bumps. (There weren’t any of those after Hurd’s 1-yard touchdown against South Carolina).
What’s the deal?
Jones read a Wall Street Journal study that revealed a direct correlation between team chemistry and physical contact between teammates.
There seemed to be plenty of energy on the Vols sideline last Saturday, but that’s only natural when you’re steamrolling an opponent like UT did Tech.
Stoops, meanwhile, didn’t like the Wildcats’ apparent lack of motivation in the loss to Georgia – especially with a chance to seize first place in the SEC East and become bowl eligible.
“We had really good preparation all week, (but) I really didn’t feel like we had an edge about us today,” Stoops said after the Georgia loss.
Nor did Kentucky safety Marcus McWilson.
“There was a lack of urgency, that’s for sure,” McWilson said. “The edge, it was there sometimes. It wasn’t there all the time. That’s for sure. You had guys milling around, walking around between plays. We’ve got to pick it up a little more.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.