Will history repeat Saturday at Sanford Stadium?
Possibly. Several factors suggest the Vols could spring the monumental upset:
First, Vol head man Butch Jones has been very successful following bye weeks as a major-college coach. He posted a 4-1 record at Cincinnati, with his only loss coming in Year 1 as he was installing new offensive and defensive systems. Here’s a recap:
Oct. 9, 2010: Cincinnati 45, Miami of Ohio 3
Nov. 13, 2010: West Virginia 37, Cincinnati 10
Oct. 15, 2011: Cincinnati 25, Louisville 16
Nov. 5, 2011: Cincinnati 26, Pitt 23
Sept. 29, 2012: Cincinnati 27, Virginia Tech 24
Jones moved to 5-1 in post-open date games when his 2013 Vols stunned Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks 23-21 last October at Neyland Stadium. The extra week of preparation proved invaluable.
“We were able to go to practice, continue to get more comfortable with our schemes, continue to work on our style of play and the standards by which we play football here,” Jones told InsideTennessee. “It (open date) also helped us in terms of getting our health back.”
Justin Worley, who quarterbacked the Vols to that 2013 upset of South Carolina, agrees that the bye week prior to that game was instrumental.
“We worked,” Worley recalled. “We had three good days of practice. We didn’t go in saying, ‘OK, we don’t have a game this weekend, so we can take a few days off.’ We worked on some things we were struggling with, then came out and performed well.”
Conversely, the Vols did not “perform well” in a 14-10 Game 11 loss to Vanderbilt following their second open date of 2013. That probably was a case of key injuries nullifying the benefits of the bye week, however. With Worley, Riley Ferguson and Nathan Peterman all coming off injuries, the Vols were reduced to starting their fourth-team quarterback, freshman Joshua Dobbs. They also were without their ace receiver, Marquez North. Still, the Big Orange would’ve won if not for a controversial replay reversal in the final minute of play.
Another reason last week’s open date should help Tennessee in Saturday’s game at Georgia is the Vols’ inexperience. The Big Orange plays so many freshmen that each passing week allows for more maturation and growth.
“It helped us in terms of getting back into the weight room, which is critical when you play as many true freshmen as we’re playing,” Jones said. “Sometimes their strength and development really gets set back.”
The open date also enabled the Vols to catch up academically, freeing their minds to concentrate on the test in Athens this week.
“It allowed a number of players to get ahead academically,” Jones said. “A lot of individuals had papers due and exams upcoming, so they had extra time to do that.”
Ultimately, the biggest benefit of an open date is that it gives a coaching staff extra time to work on fundamentals. Blocking and tackling still determine who wins, and there is limited time to work on these basics when a team is preparing for an upcoming game.
“A lot of time is spent preparing for your opponent, lining up and preparing for their schemes,” Jones said. “In a bye week you can go back and revisit and really work on yourself, work on the fine details of winning football. Our coaches have done a great job of really going back to the fundamentals.”
Yet another plus: An open date allows the head coach to tweak his schemes and his playing rotations by discarding some things that aren’t working and giving extra practice repetitions to players who appear to be on the verge of contributing significantly.
“It's a time to go back and re-evaluate all your schemes,” Jones said. “A time to quality-control yourself, quality-control your personnel and give other individuals opportunities, as well.”
For what it’s worth: Tennessee’s players believe the bye week prior to Saturday’s Georgia game could prove every bit as beneficial as the bye week prior to last year’s South Carolina game.
“Yeah,” Worley said. “We’re getting more chemistry with our offensive line, getting (freshman wideout) Josh Malone more reps with the first team – just some things here and there that are going to help our offense.”
Junior safety Brian Randolph agrees that the Vols accomplished a lot during their open date.
“I feel we had a good preparation during our bye week this year, so I’m excited to get back out there on the field,” he said. “I saw a bunch of young guys stepping up. It was a very competitive off week.”
It was so competitive, in fact, that one Vol is guaranteeing a much closer contest Saturday in Athens than the 17-point betting line suggests.
“It’s going to be a four-quarter game,” senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. “We’re going to have to be able to play and fight through four quarters to get the job done.”
Butch Jones video interview
Steve Stripling video interview