Silverberg: Vols need to show improvement from start to finish

NASHVILLE, TN – NOVEMBER 24, 2018 – Linebacker Will Ignont #23 of the Tennessee Volunteers and Defensive back Nigel Warrior #18 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Tennessee Volunteers at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

During Tennessee’s first off week in-between SEC matchups against Florida and Georgia, ESPN’s Chris Low joined Saturday Sportstalk to discuss how Tennessee could turn it’s season around after a 1-3 start that included an upset loss to Georgia State and most recently a 31-point beating from Florida in The Swamp.

“They still have a chance,” Low told WNML. “The [SEC] East is not a juggernaut outside of Georgia. There are some teams in that division that if Tennessee can stay the course and get better, improve as a football team. That’s what most reasonable fans want to see now is this team get better and continue to believe that they have a chance to be a decent football team come November.”

“I said before the season I want to see a team in November that’s markedly better than they were in September. That wasn’t the case last year. There were some high points. They beat Auburn along the way, but they got crushed, they weren’t even competitive in some games in November.”

Another one of those high points was a 24-7 win over then-No. 12 Kentucky. The games were Tennessee “got crushed” that Low is referring to were the two games that immediately followed. A 50-17 loss to Missouri on Senior Day and a 38-13 loss in the finale to Vanderbilt. A win in either game would’ve earned Tennessee a bowl bid.

This season, after SEC wins against Mississippi State and South Carolina, the Vols have turned November from being the swan song on a miserable season to the potential exclamation point on what could be a major turnaround.

November has often been a big indicator in Tennessee’s season. The schedule is normally front loaded with Florida and Georgia typically leading off the SEC slate, followed by Alabama and South Carolina usually in October, not to mention the occasional marquee non-conference matchup against a ranked opponent early in the year.

In the past decade, that means November is bowl-or-bust month for the Vols. The ten years prior it was a taking-care-of-business month for Tennessee to ensure all the work it did in September and October would hold up for the postseason. That hasn’t been the case in a while.

During the last ten years of Phillip Fulmer’s tenure as Tennessee’s head coach, the Vols record in November went as follows:

  • 1999: 3-1
  • 2000: 4-0
  • 2001: 4-0
  • 2002: 4-1
  • 2003: 5-0
  • 2004: 2-1
  • 2005: 2-2
  • 2006: 2-2
  • 2007: 4-0
  • 2008: 2-2

Add it all up and that’s a 32-9 record in the month of November over a ten-year span. Tennessee lost multiple games in November three times. 2005 and ’08 were the two losing seasons that ultimately led to Fulmer’s dismissal as Tennessee’s coach. The two losses in 2006 were both to ranked opponents and the Vols still finished 9-3.

2005 also includes a loss to Vanderbilt. Of the nine losses, four of them were by double digits and three of them (Miami in ’02, Notre Dame in ’05, South Carolina in ’08) were by 20 points or more.

Now look at the past ten years before this season. Below is Tennessee’s record in November in the ten years since Fulmer last coached the Vols.

  • 2009: 3-1
  • 2010: 4-0
  • 2011: 2-2
  • 2012: 2-2
  • 2013: 1-3
  • 2014: 3-1
  • 2015: 4-0
  • 2016: 3-1
  • 2017: 1-3
  • 2018: 2-2

Tennessee’s still above .500 at 25-15, but there are five seasons where the Vols have dropped multiple contests in the final month of the regular season, including each of the past two years. The Vols failed to make a bowl game in each of those five years.

In the last ten seasons the Vols have dropped five games to Vanderbilt, 11 losses have been by double digits and nine have been by 20 points or more (not including an 18-point loss to the Commodores in 2017). Tennessee lost nine November games total the previous decade.

It’s been said that Tennessee needs to start beating Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt on a consistent basis before it can truly turn its expectations to knocking off Florida, Georgia and Alabama in the SEC. The past ten years have laid that out rather frankly. The Vols need to be better in the second half of the season. That’s never been more true than this season.

Beginning next season the schedule levels out a little bit with Georgia and Missouri swapping places on Tennessee’s docket. The Vols host Missouri on Oct. 3 and visit Athens on Nov. 14.

A bowl game may be a stretch for Tennessee in 2019, but grabbing a couple of conference wins to close out the season can give players, recruits and fans something to point to for hope moving forward.

Tennessee opens November this year against reigning Conference USA champ UAB before closing out the year with an SEC stretch of Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. After the first month of the season nothing is guaranteed, but none of those four opponents are invincible. Wyoming shocked Missouri to open the season. Vanderbilt started 0-3 and Kentucky’s offense struggled in a loss to Mississippi State last weekend.

Nobody would expect Tennessee to sweep November right now, but that marked improvement Low mentioned could change that if the Vols get moving in the right direction during it’s four game October stretch. Good coaches can get that out of their players. Jeremy Pruitt will have to do so if he wants to show he’s truly the guy to turn Tennessee around.

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