Vols up against four-game stretch of Top 25 opponents

Friday, October 7, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 40
By Rhiannon Potkey

Running back Jaylen Wright pushes forward against Akron, but the Volunteers face even bigger tests as the bulk of the SEC schedule looms.

-- Photos By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

Just how high is the ceiling for Tennessee football this season? The answer should come in the next few weeks as the Vols hit the heart of their SEC schedule.

After ending a lengthy losing streak to Florida last month, Tennessee had a week off to rest and recover before tackling some bigger challenges to come.

The Vols play four consecutive Top 25 programs – No. 25 LSU, No. 1 Alabama, No. 13 Kentucky and No. 2 Georgia – over the next five weeks.

“I’ve learned to embrace it,” says junior running back Jabari Small. “I think last year, I noticed we had a pretty tough schedule.

“That’s just how Tennessee is, we play the best teams every year. Nothing is easy about our schedule, nothing is easy about how we win. We have to earn everything.”

Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) received a favorable game time of Noon ET/11 a.m. CT (ESPN) against LSU (4-1, 2-0) on Saturday in Baton Rouge.

The early kickoff could slow down (but certainly not eliminate) LSU fans from being as alcohol-infused and raucous as they would normally be for a prime time matchup in Death Valley.

In its first season under former Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, LSU moved into the rankings for the first time this week after beating Auburn on the road. LSU rallied for the win after falling behind 17-0.

“The way they play and compete no matter what the scoreboard looks like, you have to be prepared for their best for 60 minutes. They are a resilient team,” UT head coach Josh Heupel says. “They’ve done a really good job of creating turnovers, making special teams plays, creating short fields and flipping the way the game is played here.”

Given the SEC’s divisional schedule rotation – which will change once Oklahoma and Texas enter the conference in 2025 – the Vols haven’t visited Baton Rouge since 2010.

Fifth-year senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin will get the chance to play in Tiger Stadium before graduating, something not every former Vol can claim.

“As a player, it’s amazing. My whole family is from Louisiana, so I am excited to go down there, see my family and just play in that stadium,” Carvin says. “It’s a great conference. You go against great players, and these programs that we play at and play against, they’re big programs.

“It’s just some lifelong things that you can always remember and tell your kids, family and friends that you played there.”

Offense humming sans Tillman

Running back Jaylen Wright pushes forward against Akron, but the Volunteers face even bigger tests as the bulk of the SEC schedule looms.

Tennessee may be without Cedric Tillman for another game. The wide receiver had surgery on his ankle last week to try to speed up the recovery process and remains week-to-week on his return to the lineup, according to Heupel.

But even without Tillman on the field against Florida, Tennessee’s offense continued to hum, with other pass catchers like Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Jalin Hyatt helped filling the void as Hendon Hooker masterfully orchestrated the attack.

Hooker threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 112 yards and a touchdown in a 38-33 win that was only UT’s second in the series in the last 18 years.

The Vols are averaging a nation-leading 559.3 yards per game and are No. 1 in passing offense (365.8). They rank second in the nation in passing efficiency (196.30) and scoring offense (48.5).

Noted SEC radio and TV personality Paul Finebaum called Tennessee’s offense a “joy to watch.”

“Look at the two-year job Josh Heupel has done; it’s hard to find anyone who’s done better,” Finebaum said on a recent ESPN appearance.

“I mean, he inherited a program that was an absolute disaster, it looked like they were about to throw away the key and put Tennessee out of business after Jeremy Pruitt ran it into the wall.”

Will schedule strength be a factor?

The jury remains out on how good some of the teams are that Tennessee has beaten so far this season. The ranked win over Pitt doesn’t look as good after the Panthers lost to a bottom-dwelling Georgia Tech team that just fired its head coach last weekend.

Florida’s season-opening win against Utah was followed by some mediocre performances that made questions arise about where the Gators stand in the conference picture.

The Vols, boasting their highest ranking since reaching No. 7 in the AP poll midway through the 2006 season, can stake their claim of legitimate contenders over the next few weeks.

Although No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia are thought to be in a tier above the other SEC teams, even they have looked vulnerable at times this season.

Defending champion Georgia is coming off sluggish wins over Kent State and Missouri. The Bulldogs trailed Mizzou late before rallying to pull out a 26-22 road win.

It shows the dangers of looking ahead in the schedule, something Heupel knows the Vols can’t afford to do given the quality of opponents.

“Our players have gotten so much better in that, and I expect them to handle the week the right way,” Heupel says. “It’s a really good football team. It will be a great environment.

“It’s always tough to win on the road inside of this league, and this is our next opportunity.”