KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — All the turmoil surrounding Tennessee over the last week has lent some intrigue to an otherwise uneventful matchup with Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee Tech.
Once ranked as high as ninth, Tennessee (5-3) has lost three straight games to fall out of the Top 25 entirely. The Volunteers also have spent this week dealing with fallout from the surprising announcement Monday that leading rusher Jalen Hurd was leaving the team.
All those elements create some uncertainty over just how Tennessee will respond in Saturday’s homecoming game, even though the actual result might not feature much suspense.
“Tennessee Tech, Green Bay Packers, whoever it is, we’re focused and excited,” Tennessee defensive end LaTroy Lewis said. “Each week is an opportunity for us to put our identity on the field and on film. We’re not happy with what we did previously, so for us, we’re excited to have another opportunity to showcase our abilities and what our season’s all about.”
Tennessee Tech (3-5) has lost all of its 30 previous meetings with Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The Vols simply need a win, regardless of the opponent.
Tennessee followed up a double-overtime loss at No. 7 Texas A&M by getting blown out 49-10 at home to No. 1 Alabama and then losing 24-21 at two-touchdown underdog South Carolina.
“When you watch video on Tennessee Tech, they do a lot of good things,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “They play with a lot of energy. They’re tough. They’re physical. Coach (Marcus) Satterfield has done a great job there.
“But at the end of the day, it’s about Tennessee. Is this team going to step up and play to our expectations? Are they going to play to our style of play?”
Satterfield understands his Golden Eagles will be facing an angry Tennessee team eager to end its skid.
“People get on Coach Jones,” Satterfield said. “He’s the same coach that everybody at the first of the year (was saying) was one of the best coaches in the country. That’s still the same team that everybody thought was one of the best teams in the country.
“They’re very, very, very talented. They play exceptionally hard. They’re very well coached. … They’ll find their way out of this lull that they’re in. They’re very good. To say we have our hands full is an understatement.”
Some other things to watch when Tennessee hosts Tennessee Tech.
TENNESSEE’S NEW-LOOK BACKFIELD: With Hurd departing the team and Alvin Kamara missing a second straight game due to injury, Tennessee running back John Kelly likely will make his first career start. Kelly rushed for 94 yards on 14 carries at South Carolina. Freshmen Carlin Fils-Aime and Jeremy Lewis also could have expanded roles.
TURNOVER ISSUES: Tennessee has committed 20 turnovers this season, and 11 of them have come during this three-game skid. Kansas, Bowling Green and Duke are the only FBS teams with more turnovers. Tennessee Tech might not be able to capitalize on this situation. The Golden Eagles have forced eight turnovers all season and are tied for 114th out of 122 FCS teams in takeaways.
HOW TENNESSEE STARTS: Tennessee has trailed by double digits in seven of its eight games this season and has been outscored 83-24 in the first quarter.
STOPPING THE RUN: Tennessee is allowing 4.9 yards per carry and has allowed five different individuals to rush for over 100 yards during its three-game skid. The Vols are dealing with season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle. They should have an easier time slowing down a Tennessee Tech rushing attack that averages just 2.8 yards per carry.
EXPERIENCED BIRDSONG: Tennessee Tech quarterback Michael Birdsong has some FBS experience, as he opened the 2015 season as Marshall’s starter. Birdsong has thrown for 1,967 yards and 12 touchdowns with six interceptions while completing 63.3 percent of his passes this season.