Butch Jones has given a beleaguered Tennessee fan base reason to believe again.
There’s a renewed energy surrounding the program. Recruiting is going like gangbusters, and the Vols have been crisp, disciplined and opportunistic in their first two games of the Jones era, including a 52-20 clubbing of Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky last weekend.
After four losing seasons in the last five years, there are telltale signs that Tennessee may finally be wresting itself from football exile.
But this weekend may be more about survival for the Vols and simply coming out in one piece.
Their trip to No. 2-ranked Oregon is the start of one of the most brutal stretches in college football this season.
“All we know is we’re the only people who think we’re going to win,” Tennessee senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. “That’s all we need.”
It would rank up there among the more shocking upset wins in Tennessee history. The Vols are nearly a four-touchdown underdog, but seem to be embracing the fact that nobody is giving them a chance.
“There’s no pressure,” Tennessee senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. “They’re the No. 2 team in the country, but who cares? It’s just a number.”
The Vols have lost 16 straight games to nationally ranked foes and last won against a ranked opponent in 2009 (No. 21 South Carolina). Overall, they’ve lost 22 of their last 23 games against ranked teams going back to the beginning of Phillip Fulmer’s final season in 2008.
It’s been a long, hard fall on Rocky Top. But regardless of what happens this Saturday on the West Coast, there’s real hope about the future.
“I think it can definitely shed some light on us and how we’ve progressed from maybe last year to this year,” Tennessee junior quarterback Justin Worley said.
Simply slowing down Oregon will be a monumental task for the Vols, who forced seven turnovers last week against Western Kentucky. The Ducks have scored 125 points, racked up 57 first downs and totaled 1,329 yards (on just 140 plays) in their first two games.
Not only are they super productive, but they run their offense at the speed of light.
The Ducks have run one play every 17 seconds this season and have had at least seven touchdown drives that have lasted two minutes or less in each of their first two games.
“They’re going to make their plays. That’s what they do,” Tennessee linebacker Brent Brewer said. “We just can’t let one turn into several.”
One of the things that has been so disheartening for Tennessee fans over the last few years is that the Vols have tended to wilt in tough situations or whenever they found themselves on the wrong end of a big play.
As much as anything, Jones wants to see how this team responds when things don’t go well, not only this Saturday, but over the next several weeks.
After the trip to Oregon comes a trip to Florida, and Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama are also on the docket before the end of October.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, but we’ll find out more about where we’re at,” Jones said. “It is what it is, but we need to focus on preparation for this week and playing winning football.
“You look at the overall nature of our schedule this year. Like I told you, some people said it’s the most difficult schedule in the history of college football, and that’s why I keep talking about competing for ourselves, championship habits, focusing on the process and being able to stand and persevere and show great resiliency.”