Tennessee coach Butch Jones felt his Vols gave their all in last week’s SEC opener at Florida, but still came up way short in a 31-17 loss to the Gators.
Now Jones is interested to see how the Vols will play against visiting South Alabama today at Neyland Stadium in a non-conference game that interrupts Tennessee’s string of five consecutive matchups with nationally ranked teams.
“Moving forward we will find out a lot more about our football team,” Jones said earlier in the week, “our competitive character, our leadership, the senior class, the way we approach this week, our preparation, controlling what we can control and getting ready for a very good South Alabama team.
“I think everything is how we respond.”
Jones has said the same thing before, asking his team how it would respond to a blowout at Oregon, for instance.
Well, that produced a less-than-stellar offensive effort – fueled by unimpressive quarterback play – at The Swamp in Gainesville.
But Jones saw something from his players he hadn’t seen so far this year, his first on the job in an attempt to restore Tennessee to competitiveness and respectability.
“For the first time,” he said, “I really felt remorse in the locker room. I thought our players laid it on the line, they were visibly upset. When you invest more you put more into it, it is direct correlation to your commitment level. There is a lot of football left to be played. We shouldn’t even be talking about this. But I think that is part of the evolution, the growing stages that we are going through with this football team.”
A crowd of about 85,000 to 88,000 is expected for Saturday’s 12:21 kickoff, so the Vols haven’t been able to stir the fire-in-the-guts of fans that appear to be waiting to see which direction this portion of the schedule takes Jones’ boys.
The Vols aren’t juggernauts just yet.
They are capable of playing defense, though.
The Vols are one of the country’s best at grabbing 12 turnovers – eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries. They are ranked No. 1 in the SEC and third nationally in that key category.
They forced 17 turnovers in all of 2012.
South Alabama will be wary of Tennessee’s take-away skills.
However, the Jaguars won’t be in awe of an offense that resembles a rudderless boat without the solid play of quarterbacks who can’t make the leap to take control of the unit.
Justin Worley has been so-so. Nathan Peterman was overwhelmed in his first college start against Florida and lasted a half. A mistake-prone half, at that.
Jones has put Worley back into the starting role this week, but the question is this: Will one or both of the talented freshmen signal callers – Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson – will get playing time against the Jaguars of the Sun Belt Conference.
Tennessee is 8-0 against SBC opponents, including a 52-20 blasting of Western Kentucky on Sept. 7 in Knoxville.
Fans hope – even expect – Tennessee is good enough to put the Jaguars (2-1) away fairly early and perhaps provide the opportunity for the freshmen to show some of what they can do.
“Just like anything in our program, they are going to have to earn their spot,” Jones said.
Peterman suffered a broken hand in the Florida game and won’t be available for about a month, taking one player out of the quarterback sweepstakes.
After four games, fans wonder if it’s time to chuck the upperclassmen and give the youngsters a shot at the job and start building for the future now.
Tennessee had 154 yards of offense against Florida’s rugged defense, only 66 on the ground. Peterman and Worley combined to complete 14-of-34 passes for 154 yards and four interceptions.
Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy, a junior subbing for starter Jeff Driskel who suffered a broken leg on Florida’s second series, was more than adequate in passing for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 84 yards and a score. He hadn’t played in a game since high school.
For the record, South Alabama defeated Western Kentucky, 31-24, on Sept. 24. The Jaguars also beat Tulane, 41-39, after opening the season with a 22-21 loss to Southern Utah.
Jaguars coach Joey Jones, who has University of Alabama bloodlines, thought the win over Bobby Petrino’s Hilltoppers was a big one.
“For us to come out on the winning side against those guys,” USA’s Jones said, “is definitely the biggest win we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
It’s interesting to note that South Alabama played – by choice – three quarterbacks against Western Kentucky.
“It’s a feel thing,” the Jaguars coach said. “We have two great quarterbacks (Ross Metheny and Brandon Bridge). And we have Trey (Fetner) down on the goal line and did a great job scoring that touchdown for us. We have guys who know how to win.”
Tennessee players who have been around long enough know the feel of losing. The Vols have endured three consecutive seven-loss records, painful seasons in which Derek Dooley couldn’t get past.
The task of turning the Vols around now lies with Butch Jones.
And, if the Vols suddenly begin to make noticeable improvement on the field against top-notch teams – sure, they have to beat the people they should beat, like South Alabama – it’s likely the defense will power the turnaround.
“We have definitely seen improvements,” senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. “We had a bad loss at Oregon (59-14). We came out last week and fought like we always do. I saw no quit in the defense.”
Now, if the Vols can get its offense to stop sputtering aimlessly around the field and threaten a defense – a good one – for a change.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)