KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Last season, Tennessee was picked to win the SEC’s East Division and contend for a spot in the top 10.
The Vols aren’t getting that kind of love this season. The SEC media picked Tennessee third in the East. Some have Tennessee fourth, behind Kentucky, a team Tennessee has lost to once since 1984. The coaches’ poll has the Vols cracking the top 25, but not the top 20.
Numerous pundits don’t think the Vols can match last season’s 9-4 record, not without record-setting quarterback Josh Dobbs, productive receiver Josh Malone, versatile back Alvin Kamara and sack-master Derek Barnett.
And remember, last season, Tennessee beat its main East rivals, Georgia and Florida, but lost to two teams that had a losing record at the time – South Carolina and Vanderbilt – to blow a chance to win the division for the first time since 2007.
So does this team have a chip on its shoulder?
“Absolutely,” senior tight end Ethan Wolf said. “After letting some of the games slide that we did just fuels the fire of everybody on this team.
“We played some good football last year and some not-so-good football. I’ve said before that our goal here is always to win championships and anything less than that, we are not accomplishing what we came here to do. So yeah, I would say the whole team has a chip on its shoulder.”
Sophomore offensive tackle Drew Richmond agreed: “Yes, the whole team.”
Tennessee opens the season September 4 in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium against ACC opponent Georgia Tech, which was 3-0 against the SEC last year.
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Wolf said he believes openers can set the tone for a season.
“Yes, we want to beat Georgia Tech 100 percent; that will definitely send us moving into Week Two,” Wolf said. ” … To come out and see all aspects of our team firing on all cylinders, explosive offense, defense, special teams – that will carry us over into Week Two (against Indiana State). And then we carry that over to Florida.”
Richmond said the Georgia Tech game is extremely important.
“It’s going to be huge,” Richmond said. “It’s going to be monumental, to show out and show the country what Tennessee is about right now.”
Wolf believes there could be a carryover effect from the Georgia Tech and Indiana State contests.
“I think the first two weeks are very, very important,” Wolf said, “because obviously we know what we have Week Three.”
Trips to Florida haven’t been kind to Tennessee. The Vols have lost six in a row in Gainesville and 13 of 15 since 1977.
But in UT’s last visit to the Swamp, the Gators had to complete a fourth-and-14 pass in the final minute to escape with a 28-27 victory.
That cost the Vols a chance to win the East – something that has eluded the program for a decade.
(You can follow Jimmy Hyams on Twitter @JimmyHyams)
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