Same tune: Like Huskers, Music City Bowl foe Tennessee well-versed in ending season with disappointing losses
LINCOLN — Tennessee is right there with Nebraska in wanting to finish the season on a high note in the Music City Bowl, and also with stinging from how its season turned after a promising start.
The difference might be the expectations before it all started.
Tennessee was ranked No. 9 in the preseason AP Top 25 and seen as the favorite in the SEC East. The Volunteers were coming off a 9-4 year and potentially ready to be a playoff threat in Butch Jones’ fourth season as coach.
After a 5-0 start that included wins over Virginia Tech, Florida and Georgia — but included some red flags — the Vols lost four of their last seven, and Jones minced few words Monday when discussing how it came apart.
“I know there’s been a lot of questions in terms of the program,” Jones said. “I will tell you this: I will thoroughly, thoroughly examine everything in our football program … moving forward.
“Every amount of time where I’m not recruiting or not in a home or not in a high school, I’m examining that, and will continue to do that, and that’s a process. You have to take the emotion out. You have to look at where you’re at, you have to look at how far you’ve come and then you have to look at your deficiencies as a football team and football program.”
Tennessee had gone from five wins to seven to nine in Jones’ first three seasons and won its last six a year ago after the Vols’ four losses came by a combined 17 points. They returned 17 starters, including senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
But the season hit a speed bump with three straight October losses, the most surprising at South Carolina. After recovering with 55, 49 and 63 points over the next three weeks, the Vols were outscored 21-3 in the second half of a 45-34 loss at Vanderbilt that might have kept them out of the Sugar Bowl.
“Obviously we did not finish the way we wanted to finish, and that’s unacceptable in our program,” Jones said. “I take responsibility for that as the leader of this program.”
Injuries were one of the biggest factors, going all the way back to 20 players missing spring practice. The Vols used seven starting combinations on their offensive line in just 12 games, and Jones said Monday that sophomore Chance Hall won’t play in the Music City Bowl.
Turnovers were a problem, with Tennessee currently tied for No. 115 nationally with 25 lost (13 fumbles, 12 interceptions). Junior tailback Jalen Hurd also abruptly left the program after the losing skid.
All in all, Jones said that he has never been through a season with such highs and lows.
“Some of it is, we’ve had some unforeseen adversities, and that’s life,” Jones said. “And it’s how you adapt, how you adjust.”
Jones said Tennessee is still building the “competitive depth” it needs over the long haul, especially in the SEC. The lack of it was something he feared could bite the Vols during their important midseason stretch.
“Our starting 22 could play with anybody in the country,” he said. “I think we saw that starting out 5-0.”
Getting back to nine wins is now the focus, and senior defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis said he knows friends playing at other places who would trade for the Vols’ season.
“To win eight games, in the Southeastern Conference and (against) the type of opponents we’ve played this year, it’s really an accomplishment,” Lewis said. “And, no, I don’t think we’ll have a tough time getting up to play.”
Nebraska also started strong, going 7-0 before losing three of its last five. The Huskers’ troubles began with back-to-back road losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State, then peaked with the 40-10 loss at Iowa.
But the Huskers were unranked to start the season and were coming off a 6-7 record in Mike Riley’s first year as head coach.
“I have a lot of respect for their program, the history of their program,” Jones said. “I have a lot of good friends on that coaching staff. I know what they’re building at Nebraska, as well, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE VOLS
Record: 8-4, 4-4 SEC (tied for second in SEC East)
Ranking: No. 21 in College Football Playoff (unranked in AP Top 25 and coaches poll)
Highlight: Tennessee hadn’t beaten Florida since 2004 before rallying for a 38-28 home win on Sept. 24. The Vols, once down 21-0, had 336 yards of total offense in the second half.
Lowlight: The Vols led rival Vanderbilt 34-24 late in the third quarter — with a chance to close the regular season on a four-game win streak — only to see the Commodores score the next 21 points and pull the upset.
B1G trouble: Tennessee pounded Big Ten teams in its last two postseason games, beating Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl last Jan. 1 and Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl the year before. The Vols have won six of their last seven bowls against teams that were Big Ten members at the time.
When Tennessee has the ball: Up and down might best describe the Vols, but they scored 34 or more points in eight of 12 games. Senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs leads the SEC with 26 touchdown passes and boasts the highest passer rating but also has thrown 12 interceptions and been sacked 25 times. The running game took a hit when Jalen Hurd left the team, but Alvin Kamara is a game-breaker.
When the opponent has the ball: Nebraska will have to account for defensive end Derek Barnett, a potential first-round NFL draft pick who leads the SEC in sacks (12) and tackles for losses (18). But the Vols rank just No. 109 nationally in total defense, hit the hardest by their inability to stop the run (231.7 yards per game, 5.2 per carry, 27 rushing TDs).
Music City Bowl: Tennessee made its only previous appearance in 2010, losing 30-27 to North Carolina in double-overtime. Nashville is a little over 2½ hours from the Vols’ campus in Knoxville. Nebraska will be making its first trip to the Music City Bowl.
All-time vs. Nebraska: The Huskers have won the only two prior meetings, 31-21 in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1999 season and 42-17 in the Orange Bowl after the 1997 season. The latter helped NU get a split of its third national championship in a four-season span.