Success looks like five-game win streak for Vols

Sweeping easier remaining schedule would elevate UT to 8-4

Friday, October 30, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 44

Defensive lineman Corey Vereen takes down Jake Coker during Saturday’s near-miss at Alabama. “Corey…played with a relentless approach that we’ve come to know him to play with,” Coach Butch Jones said.

-- Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Leaves are changing colors, a chill is in the fall air and Tennessee’s football schedule is getting softer.

Happens every year.

We’ve all heard by now how Tennessee is the best 3-4 team in college football. Now is the time to prove it.

While UT coach Butch Jones won’t make any predictions about the last five games of the season, the consensus is the Vols need to go 5-0 the rest of the way to have a successful year.

There is no excuse for the Vols (3-4, 1-3 in SEC) to lose any of the last five games.

Not at Kentucky (4-3, 2-3) on Saturday night in Lexington.

Not at home against South Carolina (Nov. 7) and North Texas (Nov. 14), or on the road at Missouri (Nov. 21) or at home against Vanderbilt (Nov. 28) in the regular-season finale.

Tennessee would finish 8-4 by winning out, a record deemed attainable before the season started, a record showing moderate improvement from last year’s 7-6 team that won the TaxSlayer Bowl.

How the Vols got to 3-4 this season is painful, though.

Most recently was UT’s 19-14 loss to Alabama last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The Vols took a 14-13 lead with 5:49 to play, but Alabama marched down the field and scored the winning touchdown with 2:24 left.

Tough to watch, but not as tough as seeing the Vols blow double-digit leads in losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas.

UT salvaged its season by rallying from a 24-3 deficit to beat Georgia 38-31 on Oct. 10, and now will be favored in its last five games.

Jones was asked early in the week what end-of-season record would he consider a success, and what he would consider a failure.

“I don’t look at it that way,” Jones says. “I still think it’s a week-to-week season. I don’t like the term ‘failure.’ I think that’s a negative connotation.

“Everything we do is about (being) positive and moving forward, so it’s a week-to-week season. We’re getting better as a football team. We’re getting better as a football program each and every day.”

While the Vols lost their ninth consecutive game to the Tide, they were more competitive than any team since former coach Lane Kiffin’s in 2009, which lost 12-10.

UT can gain confidence from their showing last Saturday and take it to Lexington.

The Vols have won 29 of the last 30 games against Kentucky, with the lone gaffe in 2011 when the Derek Dooley-coached team lost 10-7 at Kentucky in the regular-season finale.

Sure, the Wildcats are playing at home Saturday night, and they were once getting votes in the coaches’ poll after a 4-1 start, but they’ve since lost at home to Auburn (30-27, Oct. 15) and on the road last Saturday at Mississippi State (42-26).

Jones knows his team will get the best from Kentucky.

“It’s going to be a challenge in and of itself, going over to Lexington,” Jones says. “It’s going to be a great environment with a 7:30 kickoff. I have a lot of respect for what (coach Mark Stoops) is building at Kentucky. He has done a very good job there. They are explosive on offense. They can score any time they get the football.”

They haven’t done it with any consistency, though.

Tennessee was an 11-point favorite to beat Kentucky early in the week, an expected strong start to the final five-game stretch for the Vols.

Big Orange fans aren’t the only ones expecting UT to run the regular-season table.

Tennessee is No. 12 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, which the sports network describes as “a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team’s performance going forward for the rest of the season.”

Other SEC teams in ESPN’s Power Index are Alabama (6), Ole Miss (10), Florida (13), Georgia (14), Texas A&M (16), and Mississippi State (20).

Jones says he’s not looking past Kentucky.

“I’m only interested in a one-game winning streak, and then you move on from there, and you continue to build upon it,” Jones says.

“But you can never get ahead of yourself. You have to focus on the process, and the only thing we’re concerned with right now is being a better football team today.”

Quarterback Patrick Towles was recruited by Coach Butch Jones while he was head coach at Cincinnati. Towles passed for 281 yards in their game last week against Mississippi State.

-- Chet White | Uk Athletics

UT needs to be better than Kentucky on Saturday, or the 2015 season will be pretty average.

Matchups to watch

Towles vs. Vols’ Secondary

Wildcats junior quarterback Patrick Towles is fourth in the SEC in passing yards (1,730) but has just eight touchdowns passes with nine interceptions.

It was the same story for Towles against Mississippi State: 281 passing yards, but no touchdowns with two interceptions on 23-of-42 passing.

Stoops and first-year coordinator Shannon Dawson will test the Vols’ secondary, which gave up 247 passing yards against Alabama.

That’s an average game for a UT defense that’s giving up 248.3 passing yards per game, most of any team in the SEC except for Arkansas (257.7).

Towles was a former “Mr. Football” for the Commonwealth of Kentucky as a senior at Highlands High in Fort Thomas, and was recruited by Jones while he was head coach at Cincinnati.

“He’s a winner,” Jones says of Towles. “He’s won numerous state championships (three at Highlands). He’s a leader. You can see that. We knew he can make every throw. He’s very, very active. He’s athletic. He can make plays with his legs. He can make plays with his arm.”

UT defensive front vs. Wildcats’ O-Line

Tennessee’s front seven had a huge game at Alabama and could use another one with Towles expected to throw it often again Saturday.

The Vols had five sacks on Tide quarterback Jake Coker and 10 tackles for loss after getting eight sacks and 29 tackles for loss in the first six games.

It was the best game of the season for the Vols’ defensive front led by end Corey Vereen with two sacks.

“I thought Corey really came off the football,” Jones points out. “He showed great explosiveness off the ball. The thing I liked about him is he worked an edge of a defender. He was able to reduce his surface, and he played with a relentless approach that we’ve come to know him to play with.

“The one sack … was an effort sack, he did a great job of running the quarterback down and not giving up. …

“I thought our defensive line really complemented themselves. We were able to generate pressure with a four-man push at times, but I thought Corey’s effort, his get-off, and his relentless approach to impact the quarterback showed.”

This could be a prime time for more pressure. Towles has been sacked 20 times this season – most of any quarterback in the SEC. Mississippi State sacked Towles once last Saturday.

UT run game vs. UK front 7

Running back Jalen Hurd pops through a hole in the Alabama line. The sophomore has 664 yards rushing this season and, barring injury, should have no trouble surpassing his total of 899 yards as a freshman.

-- Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee’s run game was effective against the best defense in the SEC last week, so there’s no reason it can’t roll up the yardage against Kentucky.

Alabama leads the SEC in rush defense (78.5 yards per game) after the Vols rushed for 132 yards on 39 carries.

Sophomore tailback Jalen Hurd ran for 92 yards and one TD on 18 carries; sophomore tailback Alvin Kamara had 21 yards on five carries; and junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs gained 59 yards rushing but netted just 19 total yards due to five sacks.

Kentucky is 10th in the SEC in rush defense (172.7 yards per game) and gave up 204 rushing yards and four rushing TDs against Mississippi State. Bulldogs quarterback Dak Prescott rushed for 117 yards and three touchdowns and threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns.

Jones says UT’s run game can open up the pass game – and vice versa.

“Anytime you can be balanced on offense, it’s going to help you,” Jones explains. “When you can run the football effectively and efficiently, that’s going to lend itself to giving you more opportunities in the throw game, particularly in the run action.

“Anytime you can get Jalen Hurd going and Alvin Kamara going, I think that helps, and I’m going to continue talking about [how] I think Jalen Hurd is one of the best backs in the country. I don’t think he’s getting the recognition that he deserves.”

Four things to watch

Tennessee’s Offensive Line

Injuries forced true freshmen Jack Jones to start at right guard and Chance Hall at right tackle against Alabama, and they could be in for more snaps (if not starts) at Kentucky.

UT starting right guard Jashon Robertson and right tackle Brett Kendrick could return from injuries against the Wildcats with Robertson more likely of the two to play.

Those injuries thrust Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High and Hall of Northside High in Roanoke, Va., into their first career college starts.

“I thought they did a very good job (at Alabama) in some challenging circumstances against one of the best defensive fronts in all of the country,” Jones says. “I thought they were poised, they were calm, very few mental errors, which is a tribute to them putting in extra time.

“What you do see at times is just a by-product of being a freshman going against seniors who have been in a strength program for three or four years. I thought you could see that, but they competed and did a very good job. I was very proud of them.”

Vols’ star linebacker

UT junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin continues to have an All-SEC-type season.

The former Clarksville Northeast High standout leads the Vols and ranks sixth in the SEC with 67 total tackles. He had 11 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss (one sack) against Alabama.

Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin had 11 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss (one sack) against Alabama on Saturday. He ranks 23rd in the nation and fifth in the SEC with 9.6 tackles per game.

Reeves-Maybin is averaging 9.6 tackles per game and ranks 23rd among Football Bowl Subdivision teams and fifth in the SEC.

It was the fourth double-digit tackle game for Reeves-Maybin, who had 21 tackles in the Sept. 21 loss to Oklahoma.

“Jalen works his craft every day,” Jones says. “He lives the game. He spends tremendous amount of time studying the opponent, understanding schemes. He’s played a lot of football for us now, and he’s able to come back after a series and sit down on the bench and tell you everything that they’re doing, and tell you the run scheme, the pass protection scheme, and that comes with experience.

“That comes with him being a veteran player, but it also comes with the amount of time he puts in preparation every week. He has very, very good instincts.”

Vols’ place-kicking woes

Jones gave place-kicker Aaron Medley a vote of confidence early in the week after the three missed field goals against the Tide, but there’s no doubt the sophomore kicker from Marshall County High School is in struggling.

His missed attempt from 43 yards after the Vols’ opening drive was an early momentum killer. Medley’s other misses were a 51-yarder at the end of the half and a 50-yarder early in the fourth quarter.

In college football, a 50-plus-yard field goal is pretty much a coin flip, so Medley should make one of those, right?

Medley is 9 of 17 on field-goal attempts this season – and 1 of 7 from beyond 40 yards.

“Aaron Medley is our kicker,” Jones explains. “We have great confidence in Aaron. He makes those kicks in practice. He will get the details corrected and we are going to need him down the stretch.”

You have to wonder what UT’s coaches have seen in practice from George Bullock, the fourth-year junior from Knoxville West High School.

Bullock, who broke his leg in preseason of 2012 as a freshman, was the backup to All-SEC kicker Michael Palardy in 2013 and to Medley last season.

Bullock had plenty of leg strength at West – he booted a 51-yarder as a senior – so it might be worth giving the local guy a shot on longer field goals in place of Medley.

Another Solid Tailback

Last week, the Vols tried to slow down Alabama tailback Derrick Henry (6-3, 242, junior).

This week, they’ll be dealing with Kentucky tailback Stanley “Boom” Williams (5-9, 196, sophomore), the team’s leading rusher last year.

Henry rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns against the Vols, and is second in the SEC in rushing yards (1,044).

Williams is eighth in rushing yards (551) but has only played six games. He’s third in the league in yards per carry (6.8) and ran for 95 yards against Mississippi State last week but didn’t score.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.