KNOXVILLE — For the first time this season, Butch Jones publicly mentioned Tennessee's need to reach a bowl game at the end of this season.
The first-year coach made the statement after top-ranked Alabama throttled his Volunteers on Saturday afternoon, but after the program's failure to reach the postseason with 5-7 finishes the past two seasons, it's no secret what the season goal was for this Tennessee team.
"It's out there. It's the goal," defensive end Corey Miller said after the Vols' 45-10 defeat. "It's exactly what we want. We know what we want, and we know how to get there.
"It's going to take everybody buying in, working hard, getting in the film room and correcting all these issues week-to-week."
Tennessee actually heads into November at 4-4, a game ahead of where most projected the Vols going into the season, after upsetting South Carolina last week. The Vols, beaten by 45, 14 and 35 points in three road games this season, visit 10th-ranked Missouri on Saturday. It's the team's fifth top-11 opponent of the season.
The Vols built some momentum with their performances against Georgia and South Carolina, and the players were confident Saturday's blowout loss, spurred by a first half of mistakes and Alabama flexing its muscle, wouldn't derail that.
"It ain't going to take it away," said linebacker A.J. Johnson. "We know we've got it. We know we've got the stuff to get us going. We've got the enthusiasm and stuff to get us hyped up and playing well, so we've just got to bring that out next week."
The Tigers have to bounce back from a crushing loss in double overtime to South Carolina on Saturday night. Missouri led 17-0 before Gamecocks' quarterback Connor Shaw, injured in the fourth quarter against the Vols, came off the bench to lead a game-tying fourth-quarter rally. Andrew Baggett's chip shot field goal hit the left upright to doom the unbeaten Tigers.
The biggest question for Tennessee again is its quarterback situation.
Freshman Josh Dobbs showed some glimpses of his potential in the second half against the Crimson Tide, and he could make his first start if Justin Worley can't play. The junior hurt his right (throwing) thumb against South Carolina, played through Saturday it with it taped and aggravated it making a first-half tackle following an interception.
Worley's throws were obviously affected by the injury late in the first half, and Dobbs did enough with his performance to warrant a longer look from Tennessee's coaching staff.
That situation may have a big impact on the season's final month, in which the Vols must win two of a schedule that includes Missouri and ninth-ranked Auburn before an open date that precedes games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
"The challenge moving forward is staying focused on the task at hand," Jones said. "We said this is going to be a process. It's not going to be fixed and it's not going to be turned overnight. We've got to focus on the process, and everything else will take care of itself.
"This is just one more step in the process, is learning week in and week out in this great football conference the mental effort, the mental intensity, the accountability that you have to make sure that you bring your A-game each and every week, understanding what it is to go on the road, the difference in preparation, the mentality that you must have -- all those things.
"We didn't play winning football. We always talk about what it takes to play winning football. Every individual in this football program, starting with myself, to the coaches and everyone, is accountable to each other and accountable to bring their best game on game day and that's start in practice. They understand that. They understand the foundation. They understand the standard and expectations in our football program."
After Saturday's game, Jones challenged his seniors and his group of leadership, and the message was simple.
"We've got to step up," Johnson said. "The seniors have got to step up. The leaders have got to step up a little more. We just can't let our season go downhill from this one loss. We're all going to come in tomorrow and get everything corrected."
Miller said that group of seniors constantly talks about getting Tennessee back into a bowl game and doing "good things for Tennessee football" in their final seasons.
"He asked the seniors how they wanted to be remembered and how they wanted to leave their legacy," the senior said. "We've had senior leadership in the past that's been pretty decent, but this one has to be better than all the rest. Team 117 has to have seniors that are going to lead this team and get us back to a bowl game."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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