The measuring stick

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Tennessee's return to relevance in college football officially begins as soon as the Vols return to relevance in SEC football.

Hammering all of the Football Championship Subdivision teams and bottom-feeding Football Bowl Subdivision teams on your schedule proves nothing. The measuring stick for an SEC program is simple: How do you stand in conference play?

For Tennessee, the answer to that question has been both unpleasant and unavoidable in recent years. Counting the final two seasons of the Derek Dooley Disaster, the Vols have lost 17 of their past 20 league games. They went 1-7 in 2011, 1-7 in 2012 and stand 1-3 thus far in 2013. Only Kentucky (2-18) has a worse SEC record than Tennessee's 3-17 mark over the past three seasons.

That's the bad news. The good news is this: The Vols have four SEC games left on their 2013 schedule – at Missouri, versus Auburn, versus Vanderbilt and at Kentucky. That's four opportunities to get the ship back on course. Tennessee's players respect the challenge but relish the opportunity.

"Every SEC game is very important, especially to this program," senior defensive end Jacques Smith said. "You go out there every Saturday and know that it's going to be a war. November is going to be very tough, and we know what's ahead, but we're ready for the challenge."

The Tennessee offense is averaging a total of 286 yards per game on the road this fall.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
Senior kicker Michael Palardy thinks so, too. Based on the number of upsets that occurred in recent weeks, he believes anything can happen in the conference this fall.

"The SEC has been a crazy league this year, especially in the East," he said. "Teams have beaten other teams they weren't expected to. It's anybody's game, and that's the way you've got to play. You've got to give 110 percent every single day. Every point counts and every win matters. The biggest thing for us is to take advantage of the camaraderie we have on this team and the amount of passion we play with and tie it in to game day."

Coming off 1-7 SEC records in 2011 and 2012, Smith is determined to get the Vols back on track in league play before departing.

"Being a senior, it's a huge goal of mine and probably all of the seniors on this team," he said. "We want to be remembered for more than those one-win seasons. I think we have a great chance to get it done if we continue to ball and stick together as a unit."

Obviously, these last four games won't be easy, given the strength of the SEC. The league has produced the past seven BCS national champions and has six teams ranked in the top 15 this week.

"It's a great league," said first-year Vol secondary coach Willie Martinez, who also coached at Georgia (2002-09) and Auburn (2012). "There's a lot of great football across America but, obviously, this league has had a lot of success the past several years with the national championships. The volume of recruiting is very intense. Everything about the SEC is intense. That's probably the first thing most people notice."

First-year Vol defensive coordinator John Jancek, who also coached at Georgia (2005-09), said the SEC is blessed with "great coaching, tremendous skill. Probably the thing that jumps out at you right away about the SEC is the line of scrimmage … both the offensive and defensive lines. The size, combined with the speed and athleticism, is really the biggest separator of the Southeastern Conference."

First-year Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is another SEC veteran, having previously served at Auburn from 2009-2012. He says the league's competition level is incredible.

"It seems like every week you're playing somebody in the top 10," Thigpen said. "Last week we played Alabama, the No. 1 team in the country. We played Florida when they were top-20. We played Georgia and South Carolina when they were top 10. Missouri is in the top 10 and Auburn (which visits UT Nov. 10) is in the top 10.

"It's a bear of a conference every week. Even against an average team you've got to bring your A-game. There's no letdown in any given week."

Of course, the fact facing SEC teams is so challenging makes beating SEC teams all the more satisfying.

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"I believe that," Thigpen said. "Every week somebody's going to give you their A-game. They're used to the competition because they see the best. If you don't come to play each week you'll get embarrassed."

First-year Vol running backs coach Robert Gillespie hasn't coached in the SEC previously but he played four years at Florida, so he fully understands the magnitude of each conference game.

"Every game in this league is tough," Gillespie said. "You're going to face a great defense every week; you're going to get every team's best. People recognize the logo on our helmets and understand the tradition of Tennessee. It's an honor and a privilege to coach here at Tennessee and to coach in the SEC because we know every week we're going to get everybody's best."

The Vols got college football's best last weekend, falling 45-10 at top-ranked Alabama. In spite of that thrashing, Tennessee's players are eager to take the field again.

"I don't think this team is going to quit at all," Smith said. "I really feel as if this team has something special coming."

It has something special coming, all right … four opportunities to notch SEC victories. There is no better measuring stick than that.


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