KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee has shown a knack for delivering comebacks, but that’s a trait the 15th-ranked Volunteers would rather not have to utilize every week.
After erasing double-digit deficits in each of its first two games, Tennessee (2-0) wants to avoid stumbling out of the gates again Saturday when it hosts Ohio (1-1).
“We have to start faster,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Tennessee opened the season by beating Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime after trailing 13-3 at halftime. The Vols didn’t take their first lead in that game until the overtime session.
One week later, Tennessee was outscored 14-0 and outgained 204-28 by Virginia Tech in the first quarter before the Vols turned things around and rolled to a 45-24 victory .
“I don’t like the slow starts, but I like what happens after the slow starts,” Jones said. “What you see is a football team that doesn’t blink, a football team that keeps playing. But as we grow further and further into the season, we have to start much faster. It’s that intensity, starting off with that mentality.”
Ohio (1-1) doesn’t have this problem.
The Bobcats have outscored teams 21-0 in the first quarter and scored the game’s first 25 points last week in a 37-21 victory at Kansas . They must avoid falling behind early Saturday to stay competitive against Tennessee, a 27-point favorite.
“You look at Tennessee, and they’re athletic all the way across the board, and that includes special teams,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “You’ve got to have to really work at getting points on the board. If we can find a way to do that early, it certainly would give us encouragement.”
Tennessee isn’t the only Southeastern Conference program dealing with this issue. No. 16 Georgia and No. 24 Arkansas are among several undefeated teams that came from behind to win each of the last two weeks.
But Tennessee is the only 2-0 team at the Football Bowl Subdivision level that has trailed by at least 10 points in both its games.
The trend is surprising for a team that faced only one double-digit deficit last season. The Vols also won that game, as they rallied to beat Georgia 38-31 after trailing 24-3.
Tennessee knows all too well that no lead is insurmountable, no matter who’s in front. Tennessee led in all four of its losses last season and was up by at least 13 points in three of them.
“The game’s never over till the end,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “We were on the other side of it many times last year when the other team came back and beat us when we were up two scores. College football’s a crazy game.”
Even so, the Vols realize they can make things much easier on themselves if they play better early on.
Jones has wondered whether his players are trying to be too perfect at the start of games and noted that “sometimes the mind can tie the feet up.”
“I’m not really sure what’s caused the slow start, but I think we’ve just got to keep on working each week and getting better,” defensive end Derek Barnett said. “It’s early in the season. It’s a long season. … We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Jones is concerned that the noon kickoff Saturday could make Tennessee particularly vulnerable to a slow start. He has discussed having more morning meetings this week to make sure his players are ready for the early start time.
He also has considered altering the way he structures his practices, perhaps having more team periods earlier in each session to see if it helps his players perform better early in Saturday’s game.
“We know Ohio is a great starting-fast football team,” Jones said. “They start fast, so we’ll have to start fast.”
Online: AP College Football website www.collegefootball.ap.org