KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee enters the toughest stretch of its schedule knowing it must play much better in order to remain unbeaten.
The 14th-ranked Volunteers (3-0) have won nine straight games over the last two years for the third-longest streak of any Football Bowl Subdivision program, behind only No. 1 Alabama’s 15 consecutive wins and No. 22 San Diego State’s 13-game run. This marks the first time since 2004 that Tennessee has won the first three games of a season.
But two of the victories were much closer than expected. Tennessee erased a 10-point deficit in a 20-13 overtime season-opening victory over 20 ½-point underdog Appalachian State and struggled to a 28-19 triumph Saturday over 27-point underdog Ohio.
“It may be ugly, but we found a way to win,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “But I think everyone knows we have to play a lot better to continue that winning streak.”
Tennessee’s next four games all are against Top 25 foes. The season-defining stretch starts Saturday when the Vols host No. 19 Florida, which has beaten Tennessee 11 straight times .
Tennessee follows that up by visiting No. 12 Georgia and No. 10 Texas A&M on successive Saturdays before hosting Alabama on Oct. 15.
“I think the gist of the matter is we have to get better in a hurry, starting tonight, starting tomorrow and starting Monday,” Jones said after the Ohio game.
Both teams in the Tennessee-Florida game figure to be missing key players.
Florida coach Jim McElwain said after a 32-0 victory over North Texas that quarterback Luke Del Rio was unlikely to play at Tennessee due to an injured left knee. Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton got hurt Saturday and is expected to miss “an extended period of time,” according to Jones.
Jones didn’t specify the nature of Sutton’s injury, but the four-year starter appeared to be getting his right ankle checked after making a tackle in the first quarter.
Tennessee also must check on the status of linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who injured his shoulder against Ohio. Injuries also prevented receiver Josh Smith, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and defensive end LaTroy Lewis from playing in the Ohio game.
Kirkland has a high ankle sprain, and Jones said Sunday on his weekly television show that it was “doubtful” the sophomore would be ready for the Florida game. Jones expressed confidence Saturday that Reeves-Maybin might be able to return for Florida.
The Vols are hoping the fact they won without Reeves-Maybin, Kirkland and Sutton can give this defense confidence moving forward.
“We’re already in the ‘next man up’ mindset, and we’re just executing,” defensive back Rashaan Gaulden said.
Tennessee has other areas where it must improve.
The Vols committed nine penalties against Ohio. They fumbled five times, though they recovered all of them. They also are still trying to find the right combination on the offensive line.
“This football team lacks consistency right now,” Jones said.
Tennessee shuffled its line Saturday by having guard Jack Jones replace tackle Drew Richmond as a starter while three other linemen switched positions. The new first-team line featured Brett Kendrick at left tackle, Jashon Robertson at left guard, Dylan Wiesman at center, Jones at right guard and Coleman Thomas at right tackle.
The Vols still gave up three sacks against Ohio. Now they’re facing a Florida defense that is allowing the fewest points per game (4.7) and yards per game (129.7) of any Football Bowl Subdivision program.
“I know all of those individuals are very prideful,” Jones said. “They will continue to work and get better, but we are searching for the best (five linemen) that give us an opportunity to win.”
Online: AP College Football website www.collegefootball.ap.org