Reasons to believe: Vanderbilt at Tennessee

Derek Mason certainly embraces the rivalry.

Throughout history, Vanderbilt football coaches have adopted a wide range of attitudes toward the annual matchup with Tennessee. Mason, in his second season, does not run from it. He does not try to downplay the importance of it to his program or the fan base.

If nothing else, that should add some energy to things when the Commodores (4-7, 2-5 in the SEC) and the Volunteers (7-4, 4-3) meet once again Saturday at Neyland Stadium (3 p.m., SEC Network).

“It’s going to be a game between two teams that have a lot to play for,” Mason said. “We only have one guaranteed game left, but it’s not about just that. It’s about what this game means. It means a lot to the people in this state. And to the people here at Vanderbilt. Just know that I know how much it means.”

Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Saturday

Pushing the limits: Tennessee has not won five straight games since 2007, but that is exactly what it will attempt to do in this one. It’s one thing to learn to win. It’s something different to learn to deal with success and this group of Volunteers is now at a level it has not experienced. Just ask Florida how difficult Vanderbilt can make things on a team (even a good one) awash in prosperity.

Kicking it: Kicker Tommy Openshaw has missed nine field goal attempts this season. Some of them (see: Western Kentucky and South Carolina) have been particularly costly. Tennessee has had a similar experience. Aaron Medley has missed nine field goals of his own. If it comes down to a kicking contest, the Commodores might not have an advantage but they’re not at an obvious disadvantage, either.

Time to punt: One of the strengths of Tennessee’s defense is its ability to prevent third-down conversions. Vanderbilt is better in that regard. The Commodores have allowed opponents to convert just 26.1 percent of their third-down opportunities, which is best in the SEC. Tennessee is next with a 27.6 percent conversion rate. The UT offense has been good at converting on third down but has not faced this defense.

Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt won’t win Saturday

Many happy returns: Vanderbilt will need a decisive and consistent edge in field position in this game. It’s not likely to get it given that Tennessee has the country’s leader in kickoff returns (Evan Berry, pictured) a top 10 punt returner (Cameron Sutton) and a punter who ranks sixth in the country with an average of 45.6 yards per pick. The Volunteers have a lot of ways to gain so called hidden yards.

Get to the point: Tennessee has played 271 games since the last time it was shut out. That is the fourth-longest active streak among FBS programs and ninth all-time. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was shut out last week, the second time in four games and third in the last 13 it failed to register a point. Unless both sides decide not to keep score, these are not good indicators for the Commodores.

On the run: The strength of Vanderbilt’s offense is its run game. Tennessee’s is better. UT is second in the SEC in rushing offense with an average of 213.7 yards per game. Its 24 rushing touchdowns are three times the number the Commodores have mustered. Both teams have a 1,000-yard rusher but Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd averages 4.4 yards per carry while Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb averages 3.9, tied for worst among the SEC’s top 10 rushers.

The bottom line

The Volunteers come into the contest with all kinds of positive momentum. They have won four in a row for the first time since 2010 and they have a chance to get to eight wins for the first time since 2007.

Vanderbilt staggers in having lost three of its last four and ensured of a losing record for the second straight season.

The fact that the game is in Knoxville does not help the Commodores’ cause any. They have to do a whole bunch of things right in order to win this game, and the combination of the Volunteers and their crowd makes it highly unlikely Vanderbilt can do enough of those necessary things.

(Photo: Matthew DeMaria/Tennessee Athletics)

Nov 25, 2015 12:25 PM

Rio Grande De-Fence Briefing: UT defense gets right back to work on new shutout streak

No one figured it would last forever.

The University of Tennessee’s defense wanted to extend its longest shutout streak in more than a decade a bit longer than the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 19-8 victory over Missouri.

Once it ended, though, the players quickly got to work on another. Missouri got the ball twice more after it scored and managed 48 yards on 11 plays.

“We were just trying to get that shutout,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “[After the score] I just wanted to hold them and not let them get any more on the board.”

The streak began in the third quarter of the South Carolina game (the Gamecocks scored with 48 seconds remaining) and lasted 125:59 of game time before Missouri scored with 9:49 remaining in Saturday’s game. It covered eight complete quarters and parts of two others and included the 24-0 shutout of North Texas.

It was the Volunteers’ longest shutout streak since the end of 2002, when they held Kentucky and Vanderbilt scoreless in the final two games of the regular season.

Missouri only reached the red zone one time, on its 12th offensive possession. Once it did, it finally scored and ended the shutout streak but it took four tries from the 1-yard line to get a touchdown.

“We had to make them earn every yard and couldn't give up the big score,” coach Butch Jones said.

A week earlier, North Texas had failed to reach the red zone. The farthest the Mean Green got in 11 offensive possessions was the Tennessee 45.

Both teams crossed midfield just three times. The first time Missouri crossed midfield, the Volunteers forced a turnover (a fumble) two plays later. The second, it got as far as the UT 48 and punted.

Neither team ran the ball well. Tennessee held North Texas to 92 rushing yards and Missouri to 88 rushing yards.

"Everyone was just flying around,” sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett said. “Everybody, we had 11 guys around the ball. (Missouri) really didn't have anything to do. They ran a lot of draws and screens, but other than that, they didn't really have anything else to do."

(Photo: Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics)

Nov 23, 2015 10:40 AM

Tyndall follows tried-and-true path for fired coach, takes television job

Apparently a, good way to get a job in television to be fired in disgrace as the University of Tennessee men’s basketball coach.

It worked for Bruce Pearl, who spent a couple years at ESPN before he got back on a bench.

Now Donnie Tyndall is giving it a try.

Nearly eight months after he was dumped for his role in NCAA recruiting violations while at Southern Miss, Tyndall has agreed to work on a college basketball show called In The Paint, which will debut Dec. 10 and run for 15 weeks on a Knoxville television station. Tyndall will work with WBJE radio host Tony Basilio.

“We will have some fun and I look forward to talking hoops with our viewers," Tyndall said in release to announce the program.

The 45-year-old Tyndall also has taken a position in the Tennessee Wesleyan athletics department.

Nov 23, 2015 5:52 AM

Jones sees long-term value in Volunteers' near-misses

Yes, they were disappointing.

Yet Butch Jones’ take on the University of Tennessee’s four losses this season is that they also were understandable, given what those four teams have accomplished this season. Plus they were motivational, given how close the Volunteers came to winning each of them.

Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama defeated UT by a combined 17 points and the most lopsided of those (seven points to Oklahoma) was decided in double overtime.  Three of those four are 9-1 and ranked among the current College Football Playoff top 10. The other, Arkansas, is 6-4 but tied for second in the SEC West.

At least once in each of the previous 13 seasons the Volunteers lost at least one game by 17 points or more. There’s still time for that to happen in 2015 but it should be noted that their remaining two games are against Missouri and Vanderbilt, the conference’s two lowest scoring offenses.

“I think now it’s evidence of how close we’re getting in building this football program,” coach Butch Jones said this week. “I think it has shown our players that we needed to do a little bit more. We needed to continue to work on the fundamentals and what it really takes to play a winning football game.”

A brief recap of the University of Tennessee’s four losses this season:

Sept. 12: Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 (2OT)
The Volunteers scored the first 17 points, gave up the next 17 (14 in the final 8:20 of regulation) and failed to answer OU’s second overtime touchdown.

Sept. 26: Florida 28, Tennessee 27
Tennessee led 20-7 early in the third quarter but was outscored 21-7 the rest of the way as Florida rallied with two touchdowns in the final 4:09.

Oct. 13 Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20
Fewer than seven minutes into the contest the Volunteers were up 14-0. Arkansas pulled even (17-17) on the final play of the first half and went ahead to stay with a touchdown drive to open the second half.

Oct. 24: Alabama 19, Tennessee 14
UT went ahead for the first time (14-13) on Jalen Hurd’s 12-yard touchdown run with 5:49 to play. Alabama answered with a 71-yard touchdown drive of its own.

Tennessee is the only team among the Sagarin Ratings’ top 20 that has played three teams among the top 10 – and two of those games were against the Nos. 1 and 2, Alabama and Oklahoma, respectively, in those ratings.

It also is one of two schools with four losses yet rated among the top 25. The other is Arkansas (24th).

“I think we’ve had one of the most difficult schedules in all of the country,” Jones said. “I think that needs to be taken notice of. I look at all the combined records of all the other teams in the country. Look at the success that Florida is having, the success that Oklahoma is having, the success that Arkansas is having.”

(Photo: Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics)

Nov 20, 2015 12:52 PM

Berry tops midseason vote for NFL Comeback Player of the Year

Semantics have been important to Eric Berry in his return from Hodgkin lymphoma, which cut short his 2014 season but ultimately did not derail his NFL career.

This week,’s NFL Nation reporters named Kansas City Chiefs safety and former University of Tennessee star the mid-season Comeback Player of the Year.

Berry has played all eight games this season (seven starts) and has one interception the ninth of his career. He is the Chiefs’ fifth-leading tackler with 31.

According to’s Adam Teicher a little bit of wordplay helped get Berry back in the game.

Berry calls all of the significant steps in his return not milestones, but checkpoints. That distinction, while subtle, can help explain Berry’s thinking through his comeback. He’s taking nothing for granted, but he clearly had expectations of himself that went beyond merely returning to football and the Chiefs.

The 26-year-old safety was far from an overwhelming choice. He earned 10 of the 33 votes, one more than Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer. Seven others, including former Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, who was third, got at least one vote.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 12, 2015 11:40 AM

UT to be without former Hillsboro star for remainder of season

Kyle Phillips proved a quick study in his first season of college football.

Unfortunately for the former Hillsboro High School star that season came to an early end.

University of Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced Wednesday that Phillips, a 6-foot-4, 259-pound defensive end, would miss the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury that requires surgery.

“He was starting to play very, very well, but we need to get that corrected so we can move forward and get him back,” Jones said. “He has a chance to be a special player. I love everything about Kyle.”

Phillips was the first of this year’s UT freshmen to have the black stripe removed from his helmet during preseason camp, a sign that he earned the trust of the coaching staff.

He appeared in the first five games, then missed the next two, a victory over Georgia and a loss to Alabama, when the issue with the shoulder first arose. He returned to action Oct. 31 against Kentucky but sat out last Saturday’s victory over South Carolina.

Phillips has eight tackles, one and a half tackles for loss, and one sack in six games.

"He's worked really hard," sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett said, via the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "He was giving us good push up the middle, especially in some of our packages. He's going to get healthy and come back next year.

"Kyle's really talented. I feel like a bunch of people haven't even seen how talented he is yet. But I know next year he'll be ready to go.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Nov 11, 2015 1:27 PM

Legal ramifications of social media activity a central issue in rape trial of former UT football players

Whatever the ultimate verdict, the trial of two former University of Tennessee football players accused of rape, appears destined to become a case study on the impact of social media in criminal proceedings.

Knox County Criminal Court Judge Bob McGee on Tuesday reversed an earlier ruling that compelled the accuser and prosecution witnesses to provide the defense team with social media posts and text messages.

McGee allowed that the defense could continue to pursue that information from social media sites through legal means, albeit separate from this particular case. The social media providers have challenged whether the defense team’s request for records of digital conversations of the accuser and prosecution witnesses on and around the date of the alleged attack is legal.

From the Knoxville News Sentinel:

In a decision almost certain to invite appellate scrutiny because of its application of current law to this new form of evidence, the judge likened talk on social media to verbal or written “statements of witnesses.” He concluded current law bars the defense from using subpoena power to garner witness statements, and digital statements are no different.

A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams have been charged with two counts each of aggravated rape and two counts of aiding and abetting rape in a November 2014 incident at Johnson’s apartment. The two have said their sexual encounters that evening were consensual.

From the News Sentinel:

Because the case boils down to one of he-said, she-said, what everyone said — defendants, accuser and witnesses — could prove key for the defense. Court records show nearly all of that conversation took place via texting and messaging via social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat and Yik Yak.

The state already obtained the digital communications of Johnson, Williams and a key defense witness — current UT wide receiver Jonathan Johnson. The defense sought the same for not only the accuser but key state witnesses. The social media providers balked and hired an attorney.

Nov 4, 2015 6:37 AM

Latest performance furthers Berry's reputation as return threat

Every time Evan Berry has gone the distance this season, the distance has been a little longer.

The University of Tennessee defensive back returned a kickoff 100 yards for his third touchdown of the season in Saturday’s in a 52-21 victory over Kentucky. The first went for 88 yards against Western Carolina (Sept. 19) and the second covered 96 yards against Arkansas (Oct. 3).

This latest one tied the record for the longest in program history and earned the sophomore SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors on Monday.

"I think Evan would be the first one to tell you it's the other 10 individuals on the football field," coach Butch Jones said, according to the UT athletics website. "They're taking great pride in their performance. They are taking great pride in their fundamentals."

Berry is the only FBS player with three touchdowns on kickoff returns this season (four others have two each) and his average of 42.6 yards (16 returns) also leads the nation. The only other player in program history with three in a season was Willie Gault (1980).

Tennessee is the only FBS team among the top 10 in both kickoff return average (first, 40.4) and punt return average (sixth, 19.1).

“Every time he catches the ball, you have a feeling something big is going to happen,” quarterback Josh Dobbs said. “He's done a great job of just controlling field position all year. You know, getting a big return when needed, getting the ball across the 25-yard line so we're starting off with better field position than just taking a touchback. That's really big to have offensively.”

The return against Kentucky, which made it 45-21 with 8:19 left in the third quarter, was his only return of the contest. The Wildcats’ other three kickoffs were touchbacks.

"It means everything to me, a record held by Willie Gault, who actually played with my dad,” Berry said following the game. “Knowing that he holds a record that hasn't been broken in 30 years is definitely a great feeling."

Nov 2, 2015 2:32 PM

Tennessee-Alabama football game returns to traditional spot in 2016

Something old. Some things new.

That’s the story of the University of Tennessee’s 2016 football schedule, which was released Thursday evening.

Seven of the Volunteers’ 12 games will be at home, including an Oct. 15 matchup with Alabama at Neyland Stadium. It will be the 99th meeting between the programs and the first since 2012 to played on the third Saturday in October, which had been a long-standing tradition.

The new elements of the schedule are the much-anticipated Battle at Bristol, a non-conference contest against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. Expectations are the event will draw the largest crowd ever for a college football game.

A week earlier the Volunteers will face Texas A&M for the first time in the regular season. The programs have met twice in bowl games (UT won both) but have not faced one another since A&M and Missouri joined the conference in 2012.

That game will take place at College Station, Texas.

Tennessee’s open date follows the Alabama game.

The Southeastern Conference released its complete 2016 football schedule Thursday evening.

2016 Tennessee Football Schedule

Sept. 10 Virginia Tech (Battle at Bristol)
Sept. 17 OHIO
Sept. 24 FLORIDA
Oct. 1 at Georgia
Oct. 8 at Texas A&M
Oct. 29 at South Carolina
Nov. 19 vs. MISSOURI
Nov. 26 at Vanderbilt

Oct 29, 2015 7:29 PM

Jones speaks up in effort to make sure Hurd is not overlooked

Jalen Hurd wants opposing players to feel something every time they try to tackle him.

Butch Jones wants everyone else to see all the things his sophomore running back does.

Jones, the third-year University of Tennessee coach, has seized multiple opportunities in recent days to trumpet the talents of the big guy from Beech High School who currently is fifth in the SEC in rushing.

“I’m going to continually talk about it: I think Jalen Hurd is one of the best backs in the country,” Jones said Monday. “I don’t think he’s getting the recognition that he deserves.”

It certainly doesn’t help Hurd that the SEC’s top five rushers include LSU’s Leonard Fournette (first), Alabama’s Derrick Henry (second) and Georgia’s Nick Chubb (fifth). All of them have been mentioned – to some degree – as Heisman Trophy candidates. Fournette and Henry have 15 and 14 rushing touchdowns, respectively, nearly twice as many as Hurd (eight).

According to Jones, though, Hurd has gotten more yards in this season’s first seven games than he probably should have.

“You always talk about when you’re evaluating a running back, ‘Does he get what the play is just blocked for, or does he get the yards after contact?’” Jones said. “Does he have the ability to make somebody miss?

“You can have a 1,000-yard rusher, and those plays are blocked to (produce) a 1,000-yard rusher. Does he get the extra yards? Does he get the hard-earned yards? I think Jalen has done a phenomenal job all year.”

For his part, Hurd is less concerned with the size of his reputation than he is with his own physical stature. He said Wednesday that more than halfway through the season he is still at, or near his preseason weight of 240 pounds. With 144 carries he also is well on his way to exceeding the 190 he had in 2014.

He started last season at about 230 and dropped several pounds along the way, which likely contributed to the fact that he was knocked out of two games early with injury issues.

“Size is a key thing in the SEC," Hurd said. "Just weighing more and being more durable - that's necessary.

“I try to use my size to my advantage. I don't want to just tap the guy, you know. You're going to feel me every single play.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Oct 28, 2015 5:22 PM