Slumping Tennessee remains confident it can bounce back
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — All the excitement surrounding Tennessee during its surge into the top 10 has morphed into anxiety about a program that has fallen out of the rankings entirely.
Tennessee (5-3) has dropped three straight games, including a stunning 24-21 setback Saturday against two-touchdown underdog South Carolina. A roster decimated by injuries now is being hit by other defections, most notably Monday’s announcement that leading rusher Jalen Hurd intends to transfer.
The Volunteers remain confident they can turn things around.
“I don’t think it’s shaken us at all,” Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. “We know what we’re capable of. We know what Tennessee football is about. When we played in those games, we didn’t play Tennessee football. We’re definitely going to bring that back into the equation.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones says the Vols must regain the energy and enthusiasm they showed while winning their first five games. He said those elements were missing against South Carolina.
“I’d be sitting up here and misleading you if I said we played with great effort and great energy for 60 minutes,” Jones said. “We did not.”
The problems hindering Tennessee were discussed Sunday at a team meeting in which players preached accountability. Jones believes the benefits of that meeting will be evident the rest of the season.
The players say they can continue moving forward without Hurd, who was just 440 yards shy of the school’s career rushing record when he left the team.
“He did a lot for us, but that’s just one player,” defensive end Derek Barnett said. “It’s not going to ruin a team.”
The Vols already are accustomed to performing without key players, as three of their four captains are injured. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last month, cornerback Cam Sutton has been out since mid-September with a fractured ankle and running back Alvin Kamara will miss a second straight game Saturday against Tennessee Tech (3-5) with an unspecified injury.
But the injury bug isn’t the only problem infecting Tennessee.
Some of Tennessee’s issues persisted even during their five-game winning streak to open the season. The Vols have trailed by double digits in seven of their eight games, and they have committed 20 turnovers. Kansas, Bowling Green and Duke are the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams with more turnovers.
Other problems have arisen more recently.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs has thrown five interceptions and lost three fumbles during this three-game losing streak. Dobbs was 12 of 26 and threw two interceptions and lost one fumble against South Carolina.
“I didn’t play well, and it obviously showed,” Dobbs said. “That’s something that can’t happen moving forward.”
After allowing just 3.8 yards per carry and 149 yards rushing per game during its 5-0 start, Tennessee has given up 6.3 yards per carry and 306.7 yards rushing per game in losses to No. 7 Texas A&M , No. 1 Alabama and South Carolina. Rico Dowdle of South Carolina was the fifth individual to run for at least 100 yards against Tennessee over the Vols’ last three games.
That run defense has been hurt by season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie as well as the dismissal of defensive tackle Danny O’Brien.
“We had some missed tackles,” Kelly said. “People were in the right position but didn’t make plays. We have to do a better job of executing.”
Tennessee has a chance to correct these issues Saturday when it hosts Tennessee Tech, a Football Championship Subdivision program that has never beaten an FBS team in 30 attempts. Tennessee follows that up by hosting Kentucky and Missouri before visiting Vanderbilt.
The Vols still could reach the SEC championship game if they win their remaining conference matchups and No. 10 Florida loses at least two more league games. The Gators still have road trips to Arkansas and No. 15 LSU as well as a home game with South Carolina.
“Everybody wants to push the panic button,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “There is no panic button. That’s football. We live in a week-to-week season.”
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