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Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Midseason report: Tennessee

By David Ching

There have been more downs than ups for Tennessee over the last month, but the Volunteers came ever so close to the program-establishing win that first-year coach Butch Jones covets the last time they took the field.

The Vols (3-3, 0-2 SEC) came oh so close to upsetting then-No. 6 Georgia in overtime, but Alton Howard fumbled into the end zone for a touchback just before reaching the pylon on what might have been the game-winning score. Instead, the Vols had to dwell on the bitter 34-31 defeat over an open week, with most of a daunting October schedule still ahead.

Following the Georgia game, Tennessee next faces South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn -- all of which are ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25. With three losses in his team's last four games, Jones might have to do the coaching job of his career simply to get his first Vols team to a bowl.

The resurgent second half against Georgia was a bright spot -- and maybe a sign of exciting things to come with Jones at the helm -- but this Tennessee team has already exhibited too many holes to expect a strong second half with the toughest part of the schedule still ahead.

Offensive MVP: Rajion Neal. There haven't been many bright spots on offense at Tennessee, but its rushing attack has been better than average, particularly since quarterback problems has rendered the passing game almost nonexistent at points. Senior running back Neal (108 carries, 616 yards, seven touchdowns) has been the focal point in the run game, ranking fourth in the SEC with an average of 102.7 yards per game. Neal has delivered back-to-back strong outings, rushing 25 times for 169 yards in the Vols' win against South Alabama and 28 times for 148 yards and two scores against Georgia.

Defensive MVP: Dontavis Sapp. A converted safety, Sapp has been an invaluable leader in his first stint as an every-down player on defense. And when we say “every down,” we mean that almost literally. Because of his well-rounded skill set, Sapp almost never leaves the field at linebacker -- and he still contributes on special teams as well. He has coverage skills -- he's tied for third on the team with three pass breakups -- and also helps defend the run, ranking third on the team with 33 tackles. Sapp is also tied for second with 3.5 tackles for a loss, has three quarterback hurries and has both forced and recovered a fumble.