Tennessee’s season-long goal of reaching the Southeastern Conference championship game remains very much within reach, even though its league record suggests otherwise.
The Volunteers (6-3, 2-3 SEC) are below .500 in league play but should be favored in the rest of their games, including Saturday’s matchup with Kentucky (5-4, 4-3). Tennessee follows that up by hosting Missouri (2-7, 0-5) and visiting Vanderbilt (4-5, 1-4).
If the Vols win all three games and No. 22 Florida (6-2, 4-2) drops at least one of its remaining conference matchups, Tennessee would capture its first Eastern Division title since 2007. Tennessee would win a tiebreaker with Florida because it defeated the Gators 38-28 this season.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said the Vols are approaching the final three weeks as “three one-game seasons.” The Vols already have lost once this year as a heavy favorite when they fell 24-21 at two-touchdown underdog South Carolina on Oct. 29, a stunner that put Tennessee’s East title hopes in jeopardy.
“When you play in this conference, you have to be a different type person, you have to have a different mental makeup,” Jones said. “The mental effort and the mental intensity that is required week in and week out in this conference, there are no bye weeks. There are no off weeks. You have to play your best football. If you don’t – if you’re not mentally prepared – you’re going to get beat.”
Tennessee essentially had a bye last week when it exited conference play and blasted Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee Tech 55-0 to end a three-game skid. Although the Vols didn’t play a conference game, they crept closer in the East standings because Florida lost 31-10 at Arkansas.
Florida hosts South Carolina (5-4, 3-4) on Saturday and then visits No. 19 LSU (5-3, 3-2). The Gators are dealing with numerous injuries , including a shoulder problem that has sidelined starting quarterback Luke Del Rio.
Kentucky, which has never played in the SEC championship game, has a less direct path than Tennessee because the Wildcats lost 45-7 to Florida earlier this year. Kentucky still could get to Atlanta if it beats Tennessee while Florida loses to both South Carolina and LSU.
The first step for the Wildcats is recovering from a heartbreaking 27-24 loss to Georgia.
“We’ll be ready to go,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “They’ll be back to work, I’m sure. They’ve been resilient and they’ll bounce back. There’s no doubt in my mind. Don’t ever quit your cattle on a stormy night.”
Kentucky remains one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010 after late-season fades left them at 5-7 in 2014 and 2015. The Wildcats also are seeking to win five conference games in a season for the first time since 1977.
While Kentucky is trying to bounce back, Tennessee is feeling good about itself again after a lopsided victory.
The Vols also are finally starting to get healthier. Jones announced Monday that defensive back/kick returner Evan Berry would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury but added that running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Cam Sutton would practice this week and have a chance of playing against Kentucky. Jones said Kamara was a little ahead of Sutton at this point.
Kamara has missed two games with an unspecified injury and Sutton has played in only three games due to a fractured ankle. Getting either player back would be a huge boost for a team that has dealt with multiple injuries on both sides of the ball. Tennessee has four team captains, but quarterback Joshua Dobbs was the only one healthy enough to play the last two weeks with Sutton, Kamara and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin all sidelined.
“You look at what this team has overcome with adversity and resolve and resiliency,” Jones said. “There aren’t very many programs or teams that can really overcome what we’ve overcome this year. I think it’s a great story.”