Paschall: Vols reach open date at 4-1 and seeking improved health

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee safety Wesley Walker lays out to tackle South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler during Saturday night's 41-20 win by the Volunteers.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee safety Wesley Walker lays out to tackle South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler during Saturday night's 41-20 win by the Volunteers.

The Tennessee Volunteers have reached their lone open date of the 2023 college football season.

A 5-0 record seemed like a very real possibility at this point when Tennessee opened with a 49-13 trouncing of Virginia in Nashville on Sept. 2, but the Vols laid another egg at Florida, giving up the final 26 points of the first half in a 29-16 setback on Sept. 16. There was then the big question as to how Tennessee would respond, and the ensuing 45-14 drubbing of the University of Texas at San Antonio along with Saturday night's 41-20 defeat of South Carolina reflect positive responses.

The make-or-break stretch of Tennessee's season -- Texas A&M on Oct. 14, at Alabama on Oct. 21 and at Kentucky on Oct. 28 -- awaits after this upcoming free weekend, but third-year coach Josh Heupel said that can wait.

"We're a football team that needs to get healthy," Heupel said Saturday night. "I usually get the question of whether this is coming at the right time, and for us right now, I would say it's coming at the right time. We need to get healthy, and we've got some young guys who have got to continue to grow. We've got to continue to grow as a football team.

"Good teams continue to get better throughout the course of a season, and we've got to play smart. Our margins just aren't big enough to not do that."

Tennessee announced Sunday that fifth-year senior receiver Bru McCoy underwent successful surgery after suffering a fracture-dislocation of his right ankle midway through the second quarter against the Gamecocks. A statement posted on social media by the school read: "Bru has displayed unwavering toughness, character and leadership as a Vol and and off the field, and he now begins the road to recovery determined to make this just a minor setback on his football journey."

McCoy, a five-star signee with Southern California in 2019, has the option of using the extra COVID year and returning to the Vols in 2024.

Tennessee is 15-3 since the start of the 2022 season, matching Alabama for the second-best record among Southeastern Conference programs behind Georgia, which has won all 20 games. That 18-game mark for the Vols is their best since the 2003-04 seasons.

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When the Gamecocks thumped Tennessee 63-38 last November in Columbia, they were a combined 10-of-13 on third- and fourth-down conversions. On Saturday night, South Carolina was 4-of-19 on third and fourth downs, which included Kai Kroeger's 32-yard pass to Xavier Legette off a fake punt early in the second quarter.

The Gamecocks failed to convert on fourth-and-2 four plays later and failed to convert on fourth-and-inches midway through the third quarter.

"We're going to look back at this thing and realize there were a lot of missed opportunities," South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. "You've got to be able to get six inches on a quarterback sneak. We are a 2-3 team right now, and we're better than a 2-3 team."

South Carolina, which arguably had college football's toughest September with games away from home against North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, is also off this week.

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Defeating Alabama is a difficult task for anybody, but it has been out of the question for Mississippi State senior quarterback Will Rogers.

In four career starts against Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, Rogers has averaged 196.25 passing yards with eight interceptions and one touchdown. The SEC's career completions leader has been sacked 16 times in the four meetings, which have produced the average score of 40-8.

The average was 40-5 before Saturday's 40-17 final in Starkville.

"The past couple of years, when they were always in four-wideout (formations), we did all kinds of junk," Saban said in a news conference, "because you knew they were going to pass. We had some of that junked out for him tonight, and they ran the ball every time on third-and-8 and made a first down. I just think the guy is an outstanding player, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.

"Our players did a good job of not allowing them to have explosive plays, especially throwing, because that was my concern going into the game."

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Georgia remained No. 1 in Sunday's Associated Press poll after using a 17-3 closing run to rally past Auburn 27-20 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Its grip at the top is not as tight, as the Bulldogs went from having 55 first-place votes last week to 35 now, with No. 2 Michigan amassing 12 first-place votes this week and No. 3 Texas 10. Since Nov. 8, 2015, when Clemson replaced Ohio State atop the weekly rankings, only four schools have ascended to No. 1 in the AP poll: Clemson, Alabama, LSU and Georgia.

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Ole Miss is the only SEC team this season with two wins against ranked foes, having knocked off No. 22 Tulane and No. 12 LSU.

Saturday's 55-49 triumph over the Tigers transpired before a Vaught-Hemingway Stadium record crowd of 66,703, with the Rebels scoring the game's final 15 points.

"We were down two scores in the fourth quarter to arguably the best offensive personnel in the country, or at least the top two or three," Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said in a news conference. "Their personnel is like Alabama two or three years ago."

Said LSU coach Brian Kelly: "We need to be pissed off about what happened and have some resolve."

In the final 15 minutes, Ole Miss rushed 16 times for 87 yards, while LSU rushed seven times for 7 yards.

"I just saw some things in that Florida State game, especially how they played late," Kiffin said in reference to the Tigers' 45-24 opening loss in Orlando. "I really challenged our guys to play physical and aggressive and to see what happens. Florida State pounded the ball on them in the fourth quarter and moved the ball late, so you can kind of read between the lines for what I thought was going to happen."

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KJ Jefferson is a really good quarterback for Arkansas.

When he's not horizontal.

Arkansas has lost the last three weeks to Brigham Young, LSU and Texas A&M, which downed the Razorbacks 34-22 Saturday in Dallas. In those setbacks, Jefferson has been sacked a combined 15 times.

"Part of it is because we're playing pretty good defensive ends, but we're going to play good ones every week," Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. "Part of it is because we're young and that we've got a lot of learning to do. We do have, in my opinion, the best tackles we have out there. Two of them today were on seven-man protections, and they were blitzing.

"Sometimes we're holding the ball too long, and sometimes there is no time to hold the ball because you're on your back."

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After losing 31 consecutive times to Florida from 1987 to 2017, with Steve Spurrier's Gators prevailing 73-7 in 1994 and 65-0 two years later, Kentucky has won four of the past six meetings.

The Wildcats made an emphatic statement with Saturday's 33-14 trampling at Kroger Field, rushing for 329 yards and 9.1 yards per carry while holding the Gators to 69 and 2.4 per rush.

"This was a good slice of humble pie," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "We've gotten beat around here, but I don't know that we've been beat up like that. We've got to take ownership of it."

Ray Davis rushed 30 times for 122 yards last November for the Vanderbilt Commodores in their 31-24 win over Florida, and he had 26 carries for 280 yards and three touchdowns Saturday to lead Kentucky's ground forces.

"Honestly, I could have played another quarter," Davis said, smiling. "I could have done at least two more."

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This week's CBS game features No. 11 Alabama and Texas A&M in College Station, but ESPN has the 5-0 versus 5-0 pairing of No. 20 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia.

"There is still a lot more out there for us, and we're going to need it," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "We all know who we play next week, and you're going to have to put it all together. We showed you out there today how good of a football team we can be when we do put it together."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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