Veteran Vols sensing end of the line, Saturday’s magnitude

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee football coach Josh Heupel and Volunteers tight end Jacob Warren take in last December's 31-14 topping of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Warren, a sixth-year senior, is down to his final two games inside Neyland Stadium.

Jacob Warren isn't just in the fourth quarter of his Tennessee football career.

The sixth-year senior tight end is in the fourth quarter of the fourth quarter.

Warren is down to his final two games inside Neyland Stadium, with the No. 21 Volunteers set to host No. 1 Georgia this Saturday afternoon (3:30 on CBS) and Vanderbilt next weekend. Depending on where Tennessee spends its postseason, Saturday could be the final ranked showdown that Warren experiences.

"I think people naturally feel that," Warren said this week in a news conference. "I think that people want the best for me and for other guys in my position. I know for the older guys on our team who are not going to be here next year, especially in my room, there is a real level of urgency for the guys leaving the program."

Tennessee entered this season with hopes of equaling or surpassing last year's run to an 11-2 record that included an Orange Bowl championship, but the Vols had the unique challenge of attacking those aspirations with more than 30 scholarship seniors, more than 30 scholarship freshmen and very little in the classes in between.

Double-digit road losses to Florida, Alabama and Missouri will prevent the Vols from reaching 11 wins again, but an upset of Georgia would be every bit as big as last year's 52-49 topping of Alabama that ended a 15-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide.

"It's a big-time game for us," Vols senior center Cooper Mays said. "Tennessee is working to put our program back on top, and this is one of our big stepping stones. I've gotten a win over the big three (Alabama, Florida and Georgia) other than Georgia."

A huge reason for last season's success was Tennessee's ability to handle the growing attention that accompanied an 8-0 start. Saturday will mark the 49th and final time that Neyland Stadium houses a "SEC on CBS" game, and third-year coach Josh Heupel hopes this year's team can take a page from last year's version.

"You can sense that this is a big one because of who we're playing," Heupel said. "Our guys have been great, and our guys have been resilient really from the time that I've gotten here. We have guys who are extremely competitive and focused, and the leadership we have on this team is a huge part of that. Guys like Jacob Warren have been dynamic leaders for us, certainly this year but even before that, too.

"This is the next one we have inside of our home stadium, and it's the only opportunity we've got this week, so we need to go take full advantage of it."

Tennessee hasn't defeated a No. 1 team since whipping Auburn in 1985, with last year's Vols losing to top-ranked Georgia in Athens 27-13. Saturday could yield a victory that would rank among the best in program history, or it could be the season's fourth loss, and potentially by double digits.

Either way, time is suddenly running very low for Vols veterans.

"You've got to capitalize on these next two weeks," Warren said, "because I'm not going to be able to play on that grass after this year. Why not go out the best I can?"


Is it Leacock time?

With both Bru McCoy and Dont'e Thornton now out for the season, Tennessee's receiver group essentially consists of fifth-year senior Ramel Keyton, sophomore Squirrel White and redshirt freshmen Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb.

Punt returner and former cornerback Dee Williams could get more in the mix Saturday, but what about freshman Nathan Leacock? The 6-foot-3, 209-pounder from Raleigh, North Carolina, was a top-100 signee but has only seen action against Connecticut.

"He got banged up in the early part of the season and missed some opportunity for growth," Heupel said Thursday in his final news conference of the week, "and I'm just talking about reps on the practice field. Since he's gotten back in the mid part, he's done a good job."


Battling perfection

Tennessee on Saturday will try to become the first SEC East program to defeat Kirby Smart's Bulldogs in its own stadium.

That's not a misprint.

Since taking the reins in Athens in 2016, Smart has guided Georgia to a 19-0 record in road games against divisional foes. The most lopsided of those triumphs have been 62-0 at Vanderbilt in 2021, 48-7 at South Carolina last season, and 41-0 at Tennessee in 2017, which is the worst defeat the Vols have endured in Neyland Stadium.

The closest calls have been the 28-27 win at Missouri and the 27-24 win at Kentucky in 2016, and last season's 26-22 escape at Mizzou.

Georgia has lost just four league road games overall under Smart, with those occurring against the SEC West quartet of Ole Miss (2016), Auburn (2017), LSU (2018) and Alabama (2020).


'Married to football'

Vols baseball coach Tony Vitello was asked Thursday in a news conference about having Alabama and Vanderbilt as their two permanent rivals once Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC.

"I think part of it is married to football a little bit when you talk about Alabama and Tennessee," Vitello said. "There is certainly something there."

The Vols and Tide didn't meet during the 2019 baseball season or this past season.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.