KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee wants to finish its season by improving the way it finishes games.
The Volunteers (3-4, 1-3 SEC) have led in each of their losses this season and were ahead in the fourth quarter in three of them. The trend continued Saturday when Tennessee allowed a game-winning touchdown in the final three minutes of a 19-14 loss at No. 7 Alabama, which was ranked eighth at the time.
“When you really look at it, we play winning football and put ourselves in position to win football games for 56 minutes,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “Now how do we continue to elevate our play to finish games off and close games?”
Tennessee has reason to feel confident about its potential for a fast finish. After losing four games by a combined 17 points - with three of those defeats coming against current Top 25 teams - the Vols face a considerably easier schedule the rest of the way.
“We understood before the season we could hang with anyone,” Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “We’ve just got to come out ready to play. You can’t really take any game lightly. Everyone’s really good, so you have to come out ready to play each week.”
The Vols visit Kentucky (4-3, 2-3) on Saturday in their last remaining game against a team that currently has a winning record. Tennessee follows that by hosting South Carolina (3-4, 1-4) and North Texas (0-7), traveling to Missouri (4-4, 1-4) and hosting Vanderbilt (3-4, 1-3).
Winning out would allow Tennessee to finish 8-4, a major step forward for a team that hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2007. Freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. acknowledged that possibility is “probably in the back of our heads” but emphasized that the team isn’t looking that far ahead and is focusing on getting better each week.
Tennessee showed its improvement Saturday by threatening Alabama, which has beaten the Vols nine straight times. Before Saturday, the last eight games in this series had been decided by an average margin of 23 ½ points.
The Vols’ improvement has caught the attention of Kentucky, which is having its own issues trying to close the gap against the SEC’s top teams.
“To credit Tennessee, to play a quality team like Alabama, to know that you’re one or two plays away from winning shows you how close they are,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We’ve been in that situation before this year against some good teams, but does it really matter? Do y’all really care? At the end of the day, it’s a win or a loss and that’s how we’re judged. That’s how we look at it.
“I’m sure they’re very disappointed that they didn’t make a couple of plays to win, but I know what type of team they are regardless of their record. I know how good Tennessee is.”
Tennessee can turn some of those close losses into victories by building on its recent progress in its running attack and pass rush.
The Vols recorded five sacks against Alabama and showed they can produce pressure even without injured defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt. Jalen Hurd rushed for 92 yards Saturday and has run for 664 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
“I think Jalen Hurd is one of the best backs in the country,” Jones said. “I don’t think he’s getting the recognition that he deserves.”
Tennessee still needs better accuracy from kicker Aaron Medley, who missed two 51-yard field-goal attempts and a 43-yarder Saturday. Medley is 9 of 17 this season but only 1 of 7 from at least 40 yards out. Jones voiced his support for the sophomore kicker Monday and said he had no plans to put Medley’s job up for competition.
“Aaron Medley is our kicker,” Jones said.
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org
This story has been corrected to show that Aaron Medley missed a 43-yard field goal against Alabama, not a 42-yarder.
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