Tennessee, the hot summer pick to win the SEC East only to be derailed by injuries, drama and departures, could still fulfill that preseason prophecy, after all.
Preparing for Saturday’s Kentucky visit, the Vols are 6-3 overall and 2-3 in the SEC. With UK, Missouri and a road game at Vanderbilt remaining, Butch Jones’ club could finish 5-3 in conference play. Meanwhile, division leader Florida (4-2) welcomes surging South Carolina this Saturday before visiting LSU next week. If Florida and Tennessee each finish with three losses, Tennessee wins the division thanks to a 38-28 September victory over the Gators.
If that happens, given recent events, it would be as if the Vols backed their way to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. It has not been a smooth season on Rocky Top.
Start Sept. 1 when Appalachian State led Tennessee 13-6 after three quarters before losing 20-13 in overtime at Neyland Stadium. It was a sign of things to come. Tennessee was forced to rally in four of its first five wins. It trailed Virginia Tech 14-0 after a quarter before winning 45-24. It trailed Florida 21-3 at the half before winning by 10. It beat Georgia 34-31 in Athens on a Hail Mary pass and reception on the final play of the game.
When the Vols rallied from a 28-14 deficit at Texas A&M only to lose 45-38 in overtime, a rockslide began. Next game, UT was punished 49-10 by No. 1-ranked Alabama. After a week off, the Vols were upset 24-21 at South Carolina.
Along the way, injuries multiplied. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a team captain, was lost for the season to shoulder surgery. Running back Alvin Kamara suffered two knee injuries in the loss to Alabama. Running back Jalen Hurd missed the Texas A&M game because of a concussion. Defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie tore a pectoral muscle against Alabama and is out for the season.
In the most bizarre twist, two days after being carted off the field at Texas A&M, defensive lineman Danny O’Brien was dismissed for an “unrelated violation of team rules.”
Now safety/kick returner Evan Berry is out for the year with a torn ACL. Berry had four career kickoff returns for touchdowns, including one in UT’s 52-21 win over Kentucky last season. He was second in the nation in kickoff returns this season, averaging 32.9 yards per return.
Actually, bottom hit on Halloween when Jones confirmed the shocking news Hurd would transfer. The junior running back was 400 yards shy of UT’s career rushing record. In a tweet over the weekend, Hurd cited injuries and a difference in offensive philosophy. There is talk he wants to play tight end or may declare for the NFL Draft.
He wasn’t missed Saturday as Tennessee snapped its three-game losing streak by drilling Tennessee Tech 55-0. UK Coach Mark Stoops said Monday he believed the Vols “Hit the reset button, got healed up, got focused and got ready to play. They went out and played an exceptional game.”
Now Kamara, who rushed for 127 yards at Texas A&M, is back practicing. So, too, is defensive back Cameron Sutton, who broke his ankle the third game of the season.
“I talked about winning the week this week and going 1-0,” Jones said after UT trounced Tech. “We’re 1-0 and moving on to next week.”
Tennessee may have fallen short of the preseason hype, but it can still reach its predicted destination.
Tennessee football results and schedule
at Texas A&M
at South Carolina
* overtime game