After facing four straight ranked opponents in a physical grind that left its roster decimated by injuries, Tennessee should have an easier road ahead the rest of the season.
That path eventually could give the 18th-ranked Volunteers (5-2, 2-2 SEC) a chance to avenge one of their two losses this season in the Southeastern Conference championship game. They’re using their off week to get healthier before continuing the chase for their first SEC Eastern Division title since 2007.
“I’ve been proud of our players and proud of our kids,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “I don’t think a team in the country has been through the adversity with everything that we’ve been through. I think it shows the competitive character we have in our program.”
That adversity includes the early deficits Tennessee has faced virtually every week as well as the multiple injuries the team has sustained on both sides of the ball.
Tennessee won its first five games despite trailing by double-digit margins in four of them. The Vols also erased a 28-7 deficit against No. 6 Texas A&M before losing that game 45-38 in double overtime . They followed that up with a 49-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama last week.
That two-game skid caused Tennessee to lose control of its destiny in the SEC East race, but the Vols should be favored in all the rest of their regular-season games.
Tennessee’s five remaining opponents (South Carolina, Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt) have a combined record of 12-20. None of those teams currently has a winning record.
Current SEC East leader Florida (5-1, 3-1) still must travel to No. 17 Arkansas and No. 25 LSU as well as facing Georgia and South Carolina. Tennessee also owns a tiebreak advantage over Florida after beating the 15th-ranked Gators last month.
“We’re not really focused on getting to Atlanta right now,” Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. said after the Alabama game. “We’re focused on the next opponent. I feel like this bye week will allow us to get our bodies healthy.”
Tennessee must focus on protecting the football and shoring up its run defense.
The Vols have committed 17 turnovers, the most of any SEC team. Kansas, Bowling Green and Duke are the only Football Bowl Subdivision programs with more turnovers.
Tennessee also is allowing 219.4 yards rushing per game and 5.2 yards per carry to rank 107th nationally in run defense. South Carolina is the only SEC team yielding more yards rushing per game.
“It’s flat-out unacceptable,” Jones said. “It’s something that will not be tolerated here. We always pride ourselves on stopping the run, and we haven’t been able to do it.”
Tennessee faces the tough task trying to improve its run defense while dealing with a lack of depth at defensive tackle following a season-ending injury to Kahlil McKenzie (torn pectoral muscle) and the dismissal of Danny O’Brien.
Depth is a concern at just about every position due to Tennessee’s injury situation.
The Vols played most of the Alabama game without four of their usual starters on the offensive line. They’ve played much of the season without either of their defensive captains, as cornerback Cam Sutton has a fractured ankle and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has undergone season-ending shoulder surgery .
Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. has missed five games with a high ankle sprain, and backup linebacker Quart’e Sapp played just two games before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Jones also acknowledged this week that running back Alvin Kamara is “banged up” without going into additional details beyond saying that “everything is wait-and-see.”
To be “5-2 at this point with everything that’s gone one, this football team has done a very good job,” Jones said. “Now we’re going to be challenged even more significantly each and every week from here on out. We have to understand that, and we will.”