KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones is challenging his team’s toughness amid concerns the Volunteers are wearing down as they play their fifth straight game against a ranked opponent.
The Vols (4-5, 1-4 SEC) will face a fifth consecutive team ranked 11th or better Saturday when they host No. 7 Auburn (8-1, 4-1). According to STATS LLC, Tennessee is the first team since Pittsburgh in 1993 to play seven ranked foes in a span of eight games within the same season.
After losing 34-31 to Georgia in overtime on Oct. 5 and beating South Carolina 23-21 the following week, the Vols have been trounced 45-10 at No. 1 Alabama and 31-3 at No. 9 Missouri in their last two games. Tennessee will be playing a third straight top-10 foe Saturday for the first time since 1964.
Jones was asked Monday if he worried that his team might be running out of gas.
“I’m always concerned, but we have great character in our football program,” Jones said. “I’m going to appeal to their competitive character. Pride and heart matter.”
Instead of going easy on his team in practice this week, Jones is turning up the intensity.
Jones said the Vols would work out in full pads as they attempt to avoid a repeat of last week, when Missouri outrushed Tennessee 339-94 and dominated the Vols on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“We’re going to be a physically tough, physically tough-minded football team in everything that we do,” Jones said. “We call it Tennessee tough, and it’s not just a fancy slogan. We have to get much tougher as a football team. I’m not going to tolerate it as a head football coach… the caretaker of Tennessee football. Tennessee football is not going to be soft.”
Senior center James Stone agrees with Jones’ plan to increase the physical intensity of practices.
“You have to be smart about it, but at the same time, you have to realize that’s the only way to go out there and play as physical as you want to play,” Stone said. “You have to practice it and do full-speed things in practice with full contact.”
Jones said he’s been through this type of situation before. He referred to his Cincinnati teams that featured current Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe and Cleveland Browns defensive tackle John Hughes.
“If one was to my left and if one was to my right, they’d tape me and chuckle and say they were both soft mentally (as juniors),” Jones said. “We challenged them, and the way they developed in a year’s time is probably the most development I’ve ever seen in two individuals.”
Tennessee may be suffering from the cumulative effect of facing ranked opponents week after week. The Vols aren’t alone in this regard.
Arkansas lost 35-17 to Auburn last week in its fifth straight game against a Top 25 team. The Razorbacks have lost six straight overall and were outscored 214-67 in their five games against ranked foes.
“For the weak, it probably brings you down,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “I think for the strong, it probably gives you a reference point in the future. It definitely does.”
Auburn isn’t taking anything for granted. The Tigers know Tennessee was competitive with ranked teams in its last two home games.
“At home they play pretty good,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “They beat South Carolina the last time at home, I think they had Georgia pretty much on the ropes and gave it away maybe in overtime. And talent-wise, they have a lot of good athletic guys. It’ll be interesting to see.”