Tennessee Vols want to end skid against ranked teams

photo Tennessee offensive lineman James Stone (64) and his fellow seniors are running out of chances to beat a Top 25 team during their Volunteers careers.

KNOXVILLE -- James Stone had just played his final regular-season game in his senior year at Maplewood High School in Nashville the last time Tennessee beat a ranked team.

Eighteen losses and nearly four years later, time is running out for the Volunteers' center and the other seniors from Tennessee's 2010 class to end that streak of missed opportunities.

Another daunting October schedule gives Tennessee three chances against ranked teams, starting with sixth-ranked Georgia's visit to Knoxville on Saturday.

"I just feel like every week is a chance," Stone said Monday. "I feel like with this football team, we always feel like we have a chance to win. We really want to focus on our preparation and going out there and doing it the right way. When we have a great week of practice, it shows on the field.

"It would mean a lot to this team, especially to these older guys and these younger guys that's been working so hard."

Under previous coach Derek Dooley, Tennessee won just once in 12 October games, against Buffalo in 2011. The futility includes three consecutive 31-point losses to Alabama, and the average margin of defeat in 11 losses was nearly 16 points. The Vols faced nine ranked teams in 12 October games in the past three seasons.

Only four times in those 11 losses -- at LSU in 2010, against Georgia in 2011 and at Mississippi State and South Carolina last season -- did Tennessee keep the margin within 10 points.

The Vols lost by a touchdown in a shootout against Georgia in Athens last season, but the Bulldogs are riding high now after taking out two of the three top-10 teams they faced in their first four games.

"I think we all know what we're up against," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.

Other than Oregon, Georgia's offense is the most powerful the Vols will face this season, and Tennessee's defense, which is 78th nationally and 12th in the SEC in total defense (413 yards per game), has a huge challenge facing quarterback Aaron Murray. The reigning SEC offensive player of the week leads a unit that trails only Texas A&M and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the league.

The Bulldogs scored 41 and 44 points in their wins against South Carolina and LSU, mostly thanks to Murray, the fifth-year senior who leads the league in passing yards per game and passing efficiency.

Jones called Murray a "Sunday quarterback" and said he's one of the best in the nation.

"Murray can defeat tight coverage," the Vols' coach said. "That's what makes him a special player. He's poised. He's in control. Their offense, a lot of these guys are seniors or juniors, they're a veteran group; they've been in big games before, and they play like it. They have a lot of confidence."

Tennessee memorably wore black uniforms when it beat 21st-ranked South Carolina on that rainy Halloween night in Neyland Stadium in 2009, and the Vols will be in the smokey gray alternate jerseys they unveiled during the preseason for Georgia's visit.

"I think it was time," Jones explained. "First of all, it's an opportunity on national television -- CBS, 3:30, against a great opponent in Georgia. Obviously recruiting, players look forward to seeing the different uniforms. I think it's something that our fan base has been waiting for. I know our players have been looking forward to wearing them.

"But that makes no impact in the outcome of the game. We have to play the game. The game is won between the lines, but we just thought the timing was appropriate."

Tennessee would view any time as an appropriate one to put an end to that 18-game losing streak against ranked teams, but after September trips to Oregon and Florida, the Vols will welcome a chance to notch that long-awaited big win in Knoxville.

"That just gives you that much more energy and gets you that much more ready for the game, because you know it's going to be at home in front of your crowd," Stone said. "It's a guy coming into your house. It gives you that added edge to the game. Coach [Jones] talked about how he wanted the team to use this week to refocus and everybody refocus and recommit themselves to the process, and I feel like the team's embracing that.

"This is a game that you really want to win."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.