KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It has become a five-game slate for Tennessee, or, as Derek Barnett called it, “Season Two.”
The No. 18-ranked Vols (5-2, 2-2 SEC) have weathered the most difficult schedule in the nation and emerged at a level that certainly meets expectations.
Sure, Tennessee needs Florida to lose one of its remaining SEC games to regain control of its own destiny. That means either LSU, Georgia, Arkansas or South Carolina need to beat the Gators.
But there’s a great likelihood of that happening, and a decent chance the Vols themselves run the table and return to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007, when first-ballot College Football Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer ran the program.
Here are five keys for Tennessee entering the second half of the season.
5. Fix the offensive line
The Vols have not shown championship talent, mentality or performance on the offensive line, which is clearly the weakest unit on the football team.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney, one of Butch Jones’ original staff members going back to Central Michigan, has been accountable for his unit’s lack of execution, and that’s a good start.
But now Mahoney needs to fix it, or Tennessee will not be able to take the next step and compete for championships.
4. Appoint Barnett captain
With three of the team’s four captains injured, Jones ought to go ahead and take the unprecedented step of appointing a captain at midseason.
Barnett is deserving of the history books reflecting this as his defense after injuries to voted captains Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
And, just what was the team thinking when it didn’t vote Barnett a captain in the first place?
3. Lift up the locker room
Quarterback Josh Dobbs and Barnett can be counted on for focus, but most every other position group has been beset with injuries or attrition of some sort.
Tennessee will need an all-in mentality if it’s to dodge the upset bug the final five games of the regular season and gain enough momentum to have a chance of winning the SEC title game.
This is where Jones and his coaching staff need to assert their leadership, making sure that every play feels strongly about his role and is prepared to execute it down the stretch.
2. Sort tailback rotation
Jalen Hurd has had a dreadful season in terms of his production, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. Kamara, meanwhile, has some degree of injury to his knee according to a Vol Network reporter.
Sophomore John Kelly has yet to prove as versatile as Hurd or Kelly, but he’s the most effective runner between the tackles.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord needs to get dialed in on his three backs and use them to the best of their abilities.
1. Tighten the corners
Secondary coach Willie Martinez has been around a long time, so there’s no reason why an athlete like Justin Martin can’t execute well enough to be trusted on the field at this point of his career.
The Vols have suffered more than their fair share of injuries in the secondary and remained a bruised-up bunch, so seeing a player of Martin’s talents go to waste must be discouraging.
(Follow Tennessee beat writer Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) on Twitter for more Tennessee coverage and analysis.)