UT must bridge gar­gan­tuan gap to reach nine con­sec­u­tive wins

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - BY DAVID PASCHALL STAFF WRITER

Ten­nessee’s eight-game win­ning streak that started last Oc­to­ber cer­tainly qual­i­fies as a cur­rent feel- good story in South­east­ern Con­fer­ence foot­ball.

Claim­ing a ninth con­sec­u­tive con­test would open ev­ery eye na­tion­ally.

The Vol­un­teers have two vic­to­ries apiece over Mis­souri and South Carolina dur­ing this run of suc­cess, as well as tri­umphs over the Univer­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham, Ken­tucky, Van­der­bilt and In­di­ana. They have earned a No. 14 rank­ing in this week’s Associated Press poll, but their sched­ule stiff­ens sig­nif­i­cantly with Satur­day’s trip to No. 3 Ge­or­gia in a matchup of 2-0 teams.

It will be the 28th game of

Jeremy Pruitt’s ca­reer as Ten­nessee’s coach and the first le­git­i­mate mea­sur­ing stick of how his Vols stack up against the SEC elite.

“In our pro­gram, we’ve con­tin­ued to im­prove over the last three years, and we’ve got to con­tinue to do that,” Pruitt said this week. “We’re nowhere where we want to be yet. I think Ge­or­gia has won the East now three years in a row, and for them to do that speaks a lot to where their pro­gram is, and it’s where we’re try­ing to get.”

Ge­or­gia has in­cred­i­ble tal­ent and sta­bil­ity in Kirby Smart’s

fifth sea­son, with the Bull­dogs hav­ing com­piled a sparkling 38-7 record since his 8-5 de­but year of 2016. The up­grade un­der Smart was al­most overnight, as his first Ge­or­gia team ven­tured to the Lib­erty Bowl and his sec­ond squad squared off against Alabama in the cham­pi­onship game of the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

Smart has wit­nessed the im­plo­sion of Ten­nessee’s pro­gram in 2017 un­der for­mer coach Butch Jones and the re­build­ing ef­forts un­der Pruitt, with the Bull­dogs hav­ing cap­i­tal­ized with three straight se­ries tri­umphs by the av­er­age score of 41-9. He re­al­izes a vastly im­proved team is headed to Athens.

“The line of scrimmage is prob­a­bly where it sticks out most,” Smart said. “Their of­fen­sive line is big and phys­i­cal, and they have good play­ers with good ex­pe­ri­ence. They’ve re­cruited well. It’s the same with their de­fen­sive line. That’s where you get beat be­fore the game starts in the SEC — if you don’t have enough guys across the line of scrimmage, and I think that they do.

“They do a re­ally good job on both sides of the ball in terms of line-of-scrimmage play.”

Smart has pointed out that Ten­nessee’s tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence in the trenches make the Vols more of a threat than Auburn, which entered San­ford Sta­dium ranked No. 7 last Satur­day night but was no match for the Bull­dogs in a 27-6 loss.

The Vols are com­ing off the most im­pres­sive show­ing of their streak, hav­ing dom­i­nated Mis­souri in ev­ery phase dur­ing last Satur­day’s 35-12 rout in Ney­land Sta­dium. Ten­nessee play­ers have been pro­vid­ing con­sis­tent an­swers this week when asked about Satur­day’s chal­lenge and the mea­sur­ing stick as­pect.

This is the first top-15 show­down in­volv­ing Ten­nessee since cracks in the Jones foun­da­tion be­came ev­i­dent dur­ing a 49-10 loss to vis­it­ing Alabama in 2016.

“We come out with the men­tal­ity that it’s just an­other game, be­cause we try to give our all in ev­ery sin­gle game that we have,” sopho­more line­backer Henry To’o To’o said. “That’s some­thing that Coach Pruitt harps on and tells us ev­ery week. This is a big team we’re play­ing, but we’ve got to have the same men­tal­ity the en­tire sea­son no mat­ter who we’re play­ing.”

Said senior run­ning back Ty Chan­dler: “They’ve got a tough de­fense, and they’re known for that. I think ev­ery­body is look­ing for­ward to it. As long as we fo­cus on the de­tails and do our jobs, I feel like we can be great, and that’s what I’m look­ing for­ward to.”

Of course, a year’s worth of per­spec­tive re­flects that a mea­sur­ing stick game is bet­ter than a must-win con­test against a Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship Sub­di­vi­sion op­po­nent. Ten­nessee opened last sea­son by giv­ing away games against Ge­or­gia State and Brigham Young, with a 45-0 shel­lack­ing of the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Chat­tanooga serv­ing as a respite be­fore ad­di­tional losses to Florida and Ge­or­gia.

“When the sea­son started last year and didn’t go the way we wanted, we knew that we were still headed in the right di­rec­tion,” Pruitt said. “We turned the ball over a lot last year early on, and, as we cor­rected that and con­tin­ued to gain con­fi­dence, our play im­proved. Our kids are go­ing to work hard to con­tinue to im­prove.

“This is a great op­por­tu­nity for us Satur­day, but we’re go­ing to play a bunch of other games af­ter this game, so we’ve got to con­tinue to work hard to im­prove ev­ery week.”

TEN­NESSEE ATH­LET­ICS PHOTO/ CALEB JONES

Ten­nessee safety Trevon Flow­ers (1) and line­backer Quavaris Crouch (27) feasted on Mis­souri last Satur­day for the pro­gram’s eighth straight win dat­ing back to last Oc­to­ber, but a ninth con­sec­u­tive tri­umph would have to come at the ex­pense of No. 3 Ge­or­gia in Athens.

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