KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee opens the season on Thursday night against Appalachian State with all eyes on the future, but also, a conscience that reminds coaches and players alike of last season’s Achilles’ heel.
The fourth quarter.
The Vols had fourth-quarter leads against College Football Playoff teams Alabama and Oklahoma before falling in both contests, as well as the program’s epic fail in the final minutes against SEC East Division champ Florida.
Cumulatively, opponents outscored Tennessee by a 73-72 count in the fourth quarters, and South Carolina was the only SEC team the Vols outscored in the final stanza (3-0) last season.
Coach Butch Jones doesn’t allow minor details to get past him, much less major issues such as the inability to close out games. A new strength and conditioning coach was hired in the offseason, and No. 9-ranked Tennessee has placed an emphasis on learning how to finish over the summer and into fall camp.
“We have spent an inordinate amount of time on it, in terms of meetings and in terms of structure of practice and just making it a heightened awareness,” Jones said at Monday’s press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio.
“We’ve tried to manufacture as much end-of-the-game-type situations and build that confidence that they’ve been in those situations, whether it’s overtime periods, or one-minute situations, every single clock scenario you could imagine,” the Vols’ fourth-year coach said. “But it’s one thing to practice it and another to be able to execute and do it when the game is truly on the line, so we’ll find out.
“We’ve practiced it and we’ve stressed it.”
No doubt, senior captain Cameron Sutton spoke on Sunday about how depth on defense should provide Tennessee with more energy to close out games this season.
The Vols and the Mountaineers kick off at 7:30 p.m. at Neyland Stadium on Thursday in a game that will be televised by the SEC Network.
Jones said he’s looking for Tennessee — a three-touchdown favorite — to get off to fast starts, too.
“I think the challenge for this team as well (as finish) is the ability to start fast,” Jones said. “If you look at the quality of opponents we have prior to our bye week (Oct. 22), it’s one of the toughest schedules in the conference.
“You look at not only within conference play, but out of conference play, it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.