Wiedmer: Two wins can save battered Tennessee Vols' season

Wiedmer: Two wins can save battered Tennessee Vols' season

November 5th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee's head coach Butch Jones slaps hands to greets fans during the Vol's Walk.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Butch Jones hit the same talking points he has all season Monday.

"The formula for this team to win is pretty simple," said the Tennessee football coach. "We have to overachieve. We aren't going to be, talent-wise, the best team we play."

In rehashing last week's 31-3 loss at Missouri, he added: "We were dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage. It is what it is. That will not be tolerated here at Tennessee."

Yet he also said, "I'm just as encouraged right now as I've ever been."

This is nothing new. This is the Jones Mantra. He said it during spring practice, during preseason practice, before and after almost every game this season.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Alabama's Nick Saban has his Process. Consistency is usually what separates the best from the rest. So it could one day be with Jones and his Volunteers.

But if the UT players looked worn down against Mizzou, their coach also sounded at least a tiny bit fatigued Monday. Back-to-back SEC road losses by at least 28 points can do that to a guy, even one as stubbornly enthusiastic and optimistic as the boss of the Big Orange.

"I think right now we are dealing with the realities of building a football program and we are dealing with the realities of a football season," Jones said of the 4-5 Vols, who are 1-4 in SEC play.

"There are natural adversities that the game and the process presents itself, and that is what we are dealing with right now. Whether it is injuries and being on your third quarterback; whether it is the schedule that we have; the nicks, the bruises, the mental grind that it takes; the lack of depth -- whatever it is. Those are natural adversities that occur throughout the course of the season."

It has been unnaturally tough for Volniacs for more than a decade. And it's not just the four losing seasons in the past five years. Or no BCS bowl game since 1999, the year after UT won the first BCS national championship game. Despite its storied history, UT has lost 20 games by 20 or more points since 2002.

Moreover, Florida has flogged the Vols nine straight time, Bama has beaten them seven straight, LSU has won five of the last six. Auburn, which invades Neyland on Saturday for a noon kickoff on ESPN, has won five straight against the Big Orange.

So while it sounds good for Jones to say of his pitch to recruits, "It's an opportunity to build something. ... It's an opportunity to be a part of something extremely special. ... It's going to mean more when we get back to being the Tennessee standard of football that we all come to expect," the reality is that over much of the last decade, UT football hasn't represented much more than mediocrity.

Which is why whatever happens Saturday against the seventh-ranked Tigers, the most important two games on the Vols' schedule will come against Vanderbilt (Nov. 23) and at Kentucky (Nov. 30) after a welcome week off following this one.

Yes, UT can beat Auburn. When you can nearly shock Georgia and finish the deal against South Carolina, you certainly can also stun the Tigers inside neighborly Neyland Stadium.

Or as Ooltewah High School graduate and UT senior defensive end Jacques Smith noted Monday of the Vols' home turf: "Neyland Stadium, to me, is one of the most special places that you could ever play the game of football in. It just pumps me up to go out there and give my all for Tennessee."

A startling stat: UT is 4-1 at home with an average victory margin of 16.6 points (including the 3-point loss to Georgia). Away from home, the Vols stand 0-4 with an average margin of defeat of 30.5 points.

Certainly the schedule has had a huge impact. Alabama currently stands No. 1, with Oregon No. 2 and Mizzou at No. 9. UT's 1998 national champs probably couldn't have swept that trio on the road. And the only resemblance these guys have to those Vols is the power "T" on the side of their helmets.

Said Jones of those road routs: "It's a grind not only mentally but physically, and getting yourself up to play your best performance week in and week out versus the best of the best. That's not a crutch, that's not an excuse, that's life in the SEC and that's life at Tennessee."

But is there much life left in these flawed yet feisty Vols? After taking all those body blows against Bama and Mizzou, is there an upset left in them this weekend, or at least two more wins against Vanderbilt and Kentucky?

"At the end of the year we're going to be right where we want to be," Smith said with a confident smile. "We'll be in a bowl and we're going to win it."

It all sounds possible. A win this Saturday would all but clinch it, given the unofficial bye week that is Kentucky.

But regardless of what does or doesn't happen against Auburn, Jones also spoke a certain truth going forward.

"Everything is going to be defined," he said, "by how we finish."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.