KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Butch Jones has made it clear he’s not underestimating the Vols’ final five games of the regular season.
The Vols coach might have crossed the line of hyperbole, however, when he essentially suggested Tennessee’s final five games will be more difficult than the first seven of the season — a slate of games ranked as the second most-difficult, according to the Sagarin Ratings.
“I’ll tell you exactly what I told our football team,” Jones said breathlessly at his Monday news conference.
“If we thought the first seven weeks was a grind, the last five weeks will be more of a grind,” he said. “Y’all don’t watch the videos. We’re playing football teams and football programs that are progressively improving.”
To be clear, Jones is asserting that South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt will present “more of a grind” than Virginia Tech, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Alabama.
It’s fair to make the argument that the Vols will be somewhat undermanned moving forward, with such starters as Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Danny O’Brien and Preston Williams gone for the season, and others such as Alvin Kamara and Cameron Sutton sidelined indefinitely.
But Jones’ sell job still came off as a bit over the top, as pure and logical as his intentions might have been.
“These are very, very talented football teams with a lot of momentum and a lot of energy and they will be up to play the University of Tennessee, and that’s a responsibility,” Jones said. “It’s going to take everything that we have.”
1. Recruiting bust, youth infusion
What if someone told you the No. 1-ranked junior college prospect would have only four tackles at the midway point of the season, and none of them have come in any of the team’s four SEC games?
Meet Jonathan Kongbo, a 6-foot-6, 284-pounder that so has so far been, ‘ “Look like Tarzan, play like Jane.”
Tennessee has a huge need at defensive tackle, where Kongbo could easily fit as an every-down player. Instead, he remains buried at defensive end, where the Vols are well-stocked with All-American Derek Barnett and All-SEC candidate Corey Vereen.
Meanwhile, Jones says true freshmen Daniel Bituli, Nigel Warrior and Carlin Fils-Aime will get plugged into more special teams en route to reps at the positions where they are needed by the team.
2. South Carolina as a rival
The fact it has come to this says more about the dip in Tennessee football than South Carolina’s rise as a contender.
Consider, the Gamecocks have been a part of the SEC since 1992, and they’ve still yet to win the SEC Championship Game — making just one appearance, in 2010, a forgettable 56-17 loss to Auburn — despite a talent-rich state full of Division I recruits, more than adequate facilities and Hall of Fame coaches Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier leading the program.
The Vols have won three straight in the rivalry and should be in position to regain the sort of dominance in the series they enjoyed before the program went off track.
3. No Kamara, no problem
Tennessee has churned out huge signing classes that have been highly rated, its attrition in line with other football-first championship contenders in the SEC.
Junior Jalen Hurd is more than capable of shouldering a full workload at tailback, and sophomore John Kelly has been impressive when given the opportunity.
Alvin Kamara is a versatile skill position player who leads Tennessee in all-purpose yardage and punt returns, but the Vols are stocked with talent looking for opportunities to carry, catch or return the football.
4. The return of D.K.
Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s return to the huddle means more than just the addition of a tackling machine at the linebacker position.
Kirkland will bring a verbal and physical presence that Tennessee simply was not able to replace since he was injured in the second game of the season against Virginia Tech.
The Vols defense should show marked improvement with Kirkland back on the field and in the locker room.
5. Offensive adjustments
Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his resume.
DeBord is a coach who helped lead Michigan to a national championship in 1997, and he was the head coach at Central Michigan that Jones learned from and would later model his programs after.
DeBord knows how to use personnel, and with Jones’ approval, there’s a good chance you’ll see him put Hurd, Kelly and quarterback Josh Dobbs in better positions to be successful down the stretch.