KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee already may have played its way out of serious contention for a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title, but the Volunteers say they won’t have trouble finding motivation.
They want to prove they’re a better team than they’ve shown the last few weeks. The Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) have spent their off week figuring out what they can do differently to salvage a season that’s gone awry.
“What we’ve been doing is not it,” running back John Kelly said.
Tennessee returns to action Oct. 14 when it hosts South Carolina, which upset the Vols 24-21 last season.
Kelly called Tennessee’s off week a “reality check” in the wake of a 41-0 loss to No. 5 Georgia, the Vols’ most lopsided home defeat since 1905. The Georgia game also marked the first time Tennessee had been shut out since 1994.
The loss to Georgia capped a dispiriting three-week stretch that also included a 26-20 loss at Florida featuring a tiebreaking 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired as well as a 17-13 victory over 27 ½-point underdog Massachusetts .
Although Tennessee was picked to finish behind both Georgia and Florida in the SEC East standings, the manner in which the Vols lost those games made the defeats more painful.
Tennessee’s struggles in the red zone and its defensive breakdown on the game-winning touchdown pass at Florida turned up the heat on Vols coach Butch Jones . The pressure increased after Tennessee failed to score against Georgia.
“All we have is each other,” Jones said. “We’ve got to work every single day, and we’re responsible for what we create.”
Florida won the SEC East with a 6-2 league record last year , so it’s possible to contend for a division title with two conference losses. Tennessee’s problem is that it still has an Oct. 21 trip to No. 1 Alabama, which has beaten the Vols 10 consecutive times .
Tennessee’s schedule gets more manageable the rest of the way. Alabama is the lone remaining regular-season opponent currently in the Top 25.
Two conference losses don’t always wreck a team’s division title hopes, as Florida won the East with a 6-2 league record last year . Tennessee’s schedule also gets more manageable the rest of the way, as an Oct. 21 trip to No. 1 Alabama is the Vols’ lone remaining game against a Top 25 team.
Then again, the UMass game showed Tennessee is capable of struggling against anyone unless it improves dramatically on both sides of the ball.
Tennessee must spend the off week deciding whether to stick with junior Quinten Dormady as starting quarterback or take a chance on redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Jones also has spent this week emphasizing the need to upgrade Tennessee’s minus-4 turnover margin .
“It’s just getting back to the drawing board, fixing the things we did wrong and just getting ready for (South Carolina),” defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie said.
Tennessee’s upperclassmen understand how to fight through this kind of adversity. Tennessee was 3-4 in 2015 before winning its last six games to end up in the Top 25 with a 9-4 record.
The Vols still believe that kind of finish is possible this year.
“We’ve been in this position,” tight end Ethan Wolf said. “It’s not a fun position to be in, but we know how to handle it.”
Kelly, the SEC’s leading rusher , laughed off the notion that Tennessee might have to search for incentive the rest of the season. After playing as poorly as they did against Georgia, the Vols are eager to make amends as soon as possible.
“We’ve still got games to play,” Kelly said. “We’re fighting every week. We’ve still got a lot of fight in us. One game’s not going to define the rest of our season.”
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