KNOXVILLE - Tennessee again finds itself in a position that's become all too familiar for mid-November.
The brutal stretch of the schedule behind them, the Volunteers again need to win out to reach a bowl game.
The precarious situation was unkind to Tennessee the past two seasons, and these Vols, under first-year coach Butch Jones and coming off three losses to top-10 teams by 35, 28 and 32 points, need to beat Vanderbilt at home on Saturday and win at Kentucky in two weeks to avoid a similar fate.
"It's pretty much Game 7 for us to get into a bowl game," safety Brian Randolph said following one of two practices last week that led into Tennessee's open date this past weekend.
"I feel like we're kind of used to the pressure now. We're going to go out there, and we're going to give it our all for Tennessee. I don't think it's going to be a big deal for us."
Tennessee's seniors are trying to duplicate what they did as freshmen, when the Vols were 2-6 after dropping six of seven games before rallying to win over Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky for the program's last bowl berth.
In 2011, the Vols were coming off a 49-7 humiliation at Arkansas with games against the Commodores and Wildcats remaining. A week after Eric Gordon pushed Tennessee over the first hurdle against Vanderbilt, the Vols infamously flopped in Lexington, losing to a bad Kentucky team with receiver Matt Rourke playing quarterback.
After an 0-4 October, Tennessee needed three wins in four November games to rally to a bowl last season, but Missouri outlasted the Vols in a four-overtime win before Vanderbilt crushed Tennessee 41-18 in Nashville in what was Derek Dooley's final game as the coach in Knoxville.
Reaching the postseason has been Tennessee's goal from the start of the season, and achieving that goal carries more weight with a first-year coach trying to get the program back on track.
"It doesn't feel any different," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We've just got to go out here and win games. We come out here and we work all year to win games, so we've got an opportunity to win two, and we need to win two.
"It would feel good for me and the seniors, but it definitely would be great for this program with what's coming in the next few years. It'd help with the recruits, and it would help with Coach Jones building the foundation."
For Tennessee to clear the first hurdle, the Vols will need to reverse how they've played the last three weeks. A defense that's been gashed by opponents' run games must find a way to play like it did against Georgia and South Carolina, when the unit overachieved. The offense, under a freshman quarterback in Josh Dobbs, must cut down on mistakes and finish drives.
Said Jones of the 55-23 loss to Auburn: "We didn't play well. We didn't coach well. We did nothing well."
During an appropriately timed open date, Tennessee's defense focused on tackling. The Vols went live with to-the-ground tackling both days of practice. It's extremely rare for teams to do that in season, and defensive coordinator John Jancek couldn't remember going full contact this late in the season at any earlier point in his career.
Special teams was even more of an emphasis than usual after Auburn killed the Vols in that phase.
"Some teams I've been a part of, they shut it down, and you can't do that," Jones said. "It's still an opportunity to improve, but also we have to get our health back. We have to get our mindset back. We have to push the reset button."
At this point, the Vols have no other option.
"I don't see it dropping," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said of the team's confidence. "That's kind of our job as seniors to keep it from dropping. The past couple years it's done that.
"We know we worked harder than a lot of teams this summer. We know we put the work in at the beginning of the season. We know physically outmatched Georgia, South Carolina. We've got to keep building on that. We can't take a step back."
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