Vols seek to continue post-rivalry responses under Heupel

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore running back Dylan Sampson is eager to move on from last Saturday's "bad loss" at Alabama.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee sophomore running back Dylan Sampson is eager to move on from last Saturday's "bad loss" at Alabama.

Tennessee third-year football coach Josh Heupel is experiencing the continuing challenges of rivalry games, having lost at Florida and Alabama this season after topping the Gators and Crimson Tide a year ago.

When it comes to contests that immediately follow a rival, Heupel has fared much, much better.

The Volunteers are 7-0 after facing either Alabama, Florida or Georgia since Heupel took the reins in 2021, and they will attempt to make it 8-0 Saturday night (7 on ESPN) at Kentucky. Tennessee outlasted the Wildcats 45-42 two years ago in Lexington, which was the first game for the Vols following their 52-24 loss in Tuscaloosa.

Heupel has discussed the balance of learning lessons with moving forward following outcomes such as last week's 34-20 loss to the Crimson Tide, and that dynamic appears to be working based off his track record.

"The lesson has always got to be to move forward, and that's as a program, as players and as coaches," Heupel said this week. "You've got to continue to improve and to put yourself and your team in the best situations. It's situational awareness. It's fundamentals. It's technique. It's all those things.

"I just think consistency is real important. The things that you say matter when you're winning and are the same types of things if it doesn't go your way."

Some of Tennessee's outcomes after rivalry games were foregone conclusions, such as the 60-14 thrashing of South Alabama after losing to Georgia in 2021 and the 65-24 bombardment of UT Martin that followed last season's triumph over Alabama. Yet there have also been remarkably stout performances, such as the 62-24 rout at Missouri after losing at Florida in 2021, the 40-13 win at LSU after last season's victory over Florida, and last November's 66-24 trampling of Mizzou a week after losing as the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings to Georgia in Athens.

Tennessee's players certainly want to bounce back after the program's 16th loss to Alabama in the last 17 meetings, especially after the Vols led 20-7 at halftime last weekend.

"You're just eager to get back on the field after games like that," sophomore running back Dylan Sampson said. "Everybody just wants to put their cleats back on, go out there and let it out. That was a bad loss, and we just need to get back out there on the field."

Said fifth-year senior linebacker Aaron Beasley: "I think we're ready to go out there again and show what we can do."

Kentucky and No. 21 Tennessee have matching 5-2 records that include 2-2 marks in Southeastern Conference play. The Wildcats delivered a 33-14 decking of the same Florida team that reeled off 26 consecutive points in a 29-16 downing of the Vols, yet the UT-UK series is among the most lopsided nationally, with Tennessee having won 35 of the past 38 meetings.

The Vols didn't want to be bouncing back from defeat this week, but that's their reality, and they've made the most of these predicaments so far under Heupel.

"You're only as good as your next performance in this game," Heupel said. "Your family, the media and everybody is going to talk about the last one, and that's their job — and the fans, too. As a competitor you've got to move on, because it's about the next one. The fact that our message is fairly similar no matter what the previous result is helps our players buy into pushing forward and continuing to grow.

"There is a lot of football left in this season for us, and you only get so many opportunities."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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