Vols seeking success in rare trip to Baton Rouge

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel, shown celebrating after the 38-33 home win over Florida on Sept. 24, will take the Volunteers to LSU this weekend for their first game in Baton Rouge since 2010.

LSU first-year football coach Brian Kelly never faced Tennessee during stints at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame, but he has plenty of ties to the Volunteers program heading into Saturday's showdown of nationally ranked teams inside Tiger Stadium.

Those ties begin with Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez.

"Willie Martinez was my defensive coordinator at Grand Valley State, so I know Willie very well," Kelly said this week. "John Jancek, who's on my staff (as a senior defensive analyst) here, was Tennessee's defensive coordinator. Butch Jones, who was the head coach at Tennessee, was on my staff.

"John Jancek's son is on the team at Tennessee, so we have a lot of ties with Tennessee from that perspective."

Kelly then paused before adding, "And I like Kenny Chesney, and he's got ties, doesn't he?"

No. 8 Tennessee and No. 25 LSU have combined for 24 Southeastern Conference championships through the years, but they have become strangers since the league expanded to 14 teams in 2012 with the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M. This is just the second meeting between the Vols and Tigers since the expansion, with the other occasion being LSU's 30-10 cruising inside Neyland Stadium in 2017.

This Saturday will mark Tennessee's first visit to Baton Rouge since 2010.

"Obviously as this league has changed and broken up into divisions, some of the games and being able to play more teams within the conference just hasn't happened," Vols second-year coach Josh Heupel said. "For us, this is a big game because it's the next one on the schedule, and playing down there is always a challenge."

Said senior safety Jaylen McCollough: "It's a blessing to be able to make this trip, and I'm excited. We're ready to go down there and play Tennessee football."

With Oklahoma and Texas scheduled to join the SEC in 2025, it is not known when Tennessee will venture back to Baton Rouge. The Vols have made two trips to Arkansas and two trips to Auburn since their last LSU visit, but the league is looking at eight- and nine-game scheduling models that allow for a significantly greater rotation.

Heupel, who lost at LSU as Missouri's offensive coordinator in 2016, is noncommittal on the eight- or nine-game debate, but Kelly's desire is crystal clear.

"I came to the SEC to play SEC games, so the more SEC games, the better for me," he said. "That's just my personal opinion, but I want to play SEC teams. The more SEC-caliber teams we can play, the better it is for me.

"That's not my call. My athletic director makes that call, but that's my personal preference."

That Tennessee leads the series with LSU by a 20-10-3 margin will have no bearing on Saturday's outcome, nor will the fact the Tigers have won the past five meetings. Perhaps the tie-in of greatest significance is Kelly's familiarity with Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker dating back to Hooker's time at Virginia Tech.

"I've gone against Hendon Hooker, so I know about him," Kelly said. "Hendon Hooker can hurt you running the football because of his athletic ability and size, and he's got a great arm. He fits this system well, because he throws a great deep ball, and the way they run their offense, they get so many one-on-one matchups, so you have to have a highly accurate quarterback who can put the deep ball on you.

"He did that well at Virginia Tech, and he does it really well within Josh's system. If he was just a running quarterback -- there are a lot of those guys. It's his accuracy on the deep ball that makes him a double threat."

That third phase

In the Vols' first two games this season against ranked teams, they suffered gaffes in special teams. They had a punt blocked in the 34-27 overtime triumph at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10, and they allowed a successful onside kick in the waning moments of their 38-33 escape of Florida on Sept. 24.

"Our coverage teams continue to get better in what they're doing," Heupel said Thursday in a news conference, "but obviously we've done some things at times that can't take place where you change the way the game is played. We've got to win that phase of the football game this week, and their personnel on their special teams units are really strong.

"It's one play, and you don't get the chance to reset, so you've got to take advantage of that play and execute at a really high level."

Tillman update

Vols fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman suffered an ankle injury in the Sept. 17 rout of Akron that forced him to miss the following week's game against Florida, and his status for Saturday has not been revealed.

"Cedric is able to move around," Heupel said, "but ultimately that will be a decision the medical staff and him make tomorrow on whether or not he's going to play."

Bru McCoy, Ramel Keyton and Jalin Hyatt combined for 229 receiving yards against the Gators, with Heupel stating Thursday, "We didn't change how we played."

Manning a legend

This just in: Peyton Manning is a legend.

The quarterback who guided the Vols to the 1997 SEC title and won that season's Maxwell, Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards is part of the SEC Football Legends class for 2022. Younger brother Eli Manning, who quarterbacked Ole Miss to a 10-win season in 2003, is this year's legend for the Rebels.

Among the other league legends who will be recognized during SEC championship weekend in early December are Alabama split end Ozzie Newsome, Florida defensive end Alex Brown, Georgia linebacker Thomas Davis and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.