SEC: Butch Jones

SEC morning links

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
1. Tennessee's search for an offensive coordinator continues. Head coach Butch Jones said the search is going "exceptionally well." Jones is looking for a replacement for Mike Bajakian, who left to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterbacks coach. Jones said a hire could be expected soon after national signing day. Whoever gets the job will have some nice talent to work with, like quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. Michigan's Mike DeBord is among those who have been reportedly linked to the job.

2. One of the most compelling quarterback situations to watch this offseason and heading into next season is at LSU. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games this season while Brandon Harris started just one while appearing in eight games. Harris was a highly touted recruit who arrived in Baton Rouge with much anticipation but it was Jennings who maintained a grip on the starting job after Harris' lone start in a loss to Auburn. Harris' high school coach at Parkway High in Bossier City, Louisiana, said he tried to talk Harris into transferring to a junior college for a season but that Harris is "all in" for staying and wants to "compete." It'll be interesting to see what results.

Around the SEC
It was a season full of highs and lows for Butch Jones and Tennessee, which is what you might come to expect with a young team in the midst of rebuilding a once-proud football program.

The Volunteers might still be a year or two away from competing for SEC championships, but they improved on last season and played in a bowl game for the first time in four years.

Offense: There were times when the offense looked great, like in the 50-16 drubbing of Kentucky or the 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But there were other times when this team looked offensively challenged -- the Vols did finish No. 10 in the SEC in total offense, averaging 370 yards per game. Considering Tennessee had to replace every starter on the offensive line, the unit performed better than many expected, though, and Joshua Dobbs provided a spark down the stretch at quarterback. The key going forward will be consistency. Grade: C

Defense: “Third down for what.” That was the theme song for Tennessee’s defense in 2014, and it might be the best way to define this group. The Volunteers finished second in the SEC in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (34 percent), and it was near impossible to convert a third down inside Neyland Stadium. They still finished in the bottom half of the conference in total defense, but the stinginess on third down, the ability to get to the quarterback (35 sacks) and the emergence of Derek Barnett made this unit more than just a liability. Grade: B

Special teams: Freshman kicker Aaron Medley was money inside of 40 yards converting 19 of his 20 attempts. Beyond 40 yards was another story, but Medley still finished second in the SEC in made field goals. The Volunteers were also among the conference leaders in both kick and punt coverage, and Cameron Sutton’s 76-yard punt return at Vanderbilt proved instrumental in Tennessee’s win over its in-state rival in the regular-season finale. Grade: B

Coaching: It’s one thing to preach a message all season. It’s another thing to get your kids to buy into the message. At Tennessee, they bought in. It might have taken some time, but they bought in. The turning point was the game at South Carolina where the Vols were all but finished before rallying from a 14-point deficit to win in overtime. That never-give-up attitude stems from the coaching staff. It came as no surprise to see Tennessee go and win three of its last four games following that dramatic come-from-behind victory. Grade: B-plus

Overall: Finishing 7-6 might be considered a disappointing season for the majority of teams in the SEC. Florida fired its coach after a 6-5 season. But Tennessee didn’t see it that way. Not for a team that hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2010. Not for a team that played 23 different true freshmen at one point or another during the season. This was the next step. The expectations will rise again next season and soon fans will expect the Vols to be competing for SEC titles, but 2014 was a year of growth for this young team, not a disappointment. Grade: B

Viewer's Guide: TaxSlayer Bowl

January, 1, 2015
Jan 1
Another Big Ten-SEC matchup arrives Friday (3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN) as Iowa takes on Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. Iowa (7-5) enters with four losses in its last six games, while the Vols (6-6) won three of their final four to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. That same season marks the last time Iowa won a bowl game, while the Volunteers' most recent postseason victory came in 2007. Here’s a look at a few storylines:

Iowa QB drama: Coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday named junior Jake Rudock the starter against the Vols, though sophomore C.J. Beathard will play. They've battled much of the season in practice. Rudock started 11 of 12 games, but a team-wide meltdown in the season finale against Nebraska reopened all competitions. Beathard, a third-year sophomore, has indicated that he might consider a transfer this offseason. The opportunity available on Friday figures to loom large in his decision.

Burning question: Will the Hawkeyes get imaginative on offense or simply try to pound away with a stable of backs led by Mark Weisman, who is workmanlike but pedestrian in comparison to running backs Tennessee has faced this year? Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis often prefers to err on the side of conservatism. When the Hawkeyes open it up and things click, they’re dangerous. But it just hasn’t happened enough.

The future is bright: Sophomore QB Joshua Dobbs breathed life into this Tennessee season. After starter Justin Worley was injured on Oct. 18 at Ole Miss, Dobbs took over for Nathan Peterman on Oct. 25 against Alabama. The dual-threat Dobbs held the job as the Vols averaged 35 points in four November games. Against South Carolina, Dobbs became the first Tennessee player to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. Tennessee struggles to protect its quarterback and Iowa’s front four forges a strong rush. Dobbs’ ability to improvise is key. He'll have to work against Iowa with injured receivers Marquez North and Jason Croom.

In the red zone: Tennessee ranks 104th nationally in red zone efficiency -- an area the Hawkeyes need to exploit. Iowa, as you might expect, is exceptionally average in the red zone, ranking 53rd in offensive efficiency. In this matchup, perhaps that will be good enough.

Sense of direction: Ferentz, in his 16th season, still seeks a formula to break from a five-year stretch in which Iowa has finished higher than fourth in its division just once. Segments of the fan base continue to grow restless. Tennessee coach Butch Jones, meanwhile, inspired hope in his second season that Tennessee has finally found its man after three coaching changes in five years.

SEC rivalries that need to happen

December, 23, 2014
With the Allstate Sugar Bowl rekindling a great coaching rivalry in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer, it got me to thinking (shocker, I know): There are some SEC rivalries that I'd love to see take off in the near future.

What Saban and Meyer did -- and what Saban keeps doing -- in the SEC has changed the landscape of the league. And even though they met just three times in the SEC, we all wanted to watch when they did. So why not have a few games that we all get hyped up for when they come around?

I came up with five games that I want to see turn into or turn back into great rivalries to get your popcorn ready for. Of course, scheduling hurts most of these games, but maybe the right people will hear me out ...

Have a few of your own rivalries you want to see in the SEC? List them below!

1. Alabama vs. Florida: Remember when these two just couldn't stop playing each other in the SEC championship games in the 90s? Remember the Meyer-Saban days? Now, there's another ex-Saban assistant -- Jim McElwain -- coaching the Gators, and a chance of redemption in Gainesville. Saban and Alabama are the class of the SEC, just like Florida was in the 90s. Having these guys good at the same time and playing against each other, more often than not, is good for the league.

2. Arkansas vs. Auburn: OK, so these two play every year, but, man, amping up the Gus Malzahn-Bret Bielema storyline would be great. They've both exchanged words with each other, there's been controversy, and they are both the antithesis of each other when it comes to offensive philosophies. This game has the chance to be fun for everyone who cares anything concerned with SEC football. The quiet Malzahn vs. the brash Bielema is too good not to be on everyone's radar each year.

3. Georgia vs. LSU: The Tigers hold a 16-13-1 series lead over Georgia, and that 44-41 Georgia win in 2013 was one for the ages. These two are two of the best in their respective divisions, and should play a lot more than they do, but with the new scheduling format, we have to wait and wait. I mean who wouldn't want to see the laid back Mark Richt in his signature sunglasses taking on the Mad Hatter more? Two very different, yet very successful coaching styles meeting more often just needs to happen.

4. Ole Miss vs. Tennessee: These two went back-and-forth in the 1970s, but Tennessee has dominated the series. However, with Hugh Freeze at the helm in Oxford, this has the chance to be a fun little rivalry to keep an eye on. Why? Well, Freeze coached in the state of Tennessee for more than a decade and can recruit in Butch Jones' backyard when needed. The two played in a lopsided Ole Miss win this year, but with Tennessee trending up with its young talent, these two could have much more competitive games in the future.

5. Missouri vs. Texas A&M: I mean, they were together in the Big 12, and it only makes sense that they ignite those old bitter feelings for each other. Honestly, this game should be played every year because of that. You have two very impressive coaching résumés and two schools that entered the SEC poking their own chests out at the SEC elite. It's been great, so let's get them back on the schedule!

Honorable mention

Auburn vs. Florida: This was one of the great rivalries in the league before it was basically discontinued in 2003. There have been classics in the past and the 2000s brought us some nail-biters in this game, as well. It was sad for both fan bases when this game got cut from both schools' regular schedules, but now Will Muschamp is at Auburn, so hopefully these two can meet while he's still on the Plains.
There is a certain assurance, a tone of confidence when Joshua Dobbs speaks. The Tennessee quarterback has never been one to look over his shoulder, but he knows he’s the starter now and he knows that he will be the starter heading into next season.

That has not been the case in the past.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
AP Photo/Richard ShiroJoshua Dobbs established himself as the Vols' QB of the future with strong play down the stretch.
At this time a year ago, Dobbs was coming off a game where he scored three touchdowns to lead the Volunteers past Kentucky. But he also knew that Justin Worley would return from a thumb injury in the spring and look to take back the starting job.

Worley was injured again this season, opening the door for Dobbs, but Worley isn’t coming back in 2015. He’s a senior. And it might not matter anyway. In the team’s final five games, Dobbs accounted for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tennessee went 3-2 during that stretch and finished the season bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

“I’ve just gone out, executed and played my game,” Dobbs said. “Obviously, the coaches have a lot of confidence, so my goal is just to execute the game plan.”

However, as the Vols prepare for Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the coaches also know that Dobbs still has room for improvement.

After one of Dobbs’ best games this season, a dramatic come-from-behind win over South Carolina, coach Butch Jones put the brakes on all the hype and called out his quarterback’s consistency in practice, saying he needs to play with great consistency "day in and day out."

“Coach just wants me to make the routine plays as any coach does,” Dobbs said. “He wants to push me every day, and he wants me to get better. Obviously, I want to make every play that’s given to me, so my job is to go out and execute the offense and execute the plays that Coach [Mike] Bajakian calls and do it to the best of my abilities.”

That’s why becoming bowl eligible was so important for Dobbs and this young Tennessee team. It was the next step in the rebuilding process, but it also gives the Volunteers more practice time and an opportunity for more reps.

Dobbs has already seen more reps since becoming the starter, and his game has taken off as a result.

“Where he benefited tremendously was just from gaining the extra reps that go along with being a starter,” Bajakian said. “Any player is going to improve as they get more and more reps, but in Josh’s case in particular, he seems to improve at an even higher rate than others when a high volume of reps is afforded to him.”

Now Dobbs has two weeks of bowl practice where he’s getting those extra reps. But rather than solely focusing on his own shortcomings, he’s working more on his timing with the wide receivers and understanding what the offensive line is doing on every play and making sure the offense is on the same page.

“We’re just continuing to grow together as a unit,” Dobbs said. “That’s what the whole offense is working on right now.”

Tennessee has a chance to make some noise in the SEC East next year -- the Vols return 10 starters on offense and eight on defense – but it hinges on the play of the quarterback. It’s up to Dobbs to be more consistent and take that next step.

And yet, he’s not feeling any pressure. He’s confident, eager for the next challenge.
Christmas came early for Tennessee walk-on Alex Ellis this week. The redshirt junior received a special bowl gift from Vols’ head coach Butch Jones on Monday -- a scholarship.

“I’ve been dreaming about this every day of my life,” Ellis said after he opened it.

Ellis has played in all 12 games this season for the Volunteers. He has six catches for 115 yards, and he scored a 31-yard touchdown on a fake field goal against Missouri on Nov. 22. He made his first career start the week before against Kentucky.

His teammates and fellow coaches were just as excited, giving Ellis a standing ovation when he unwrapped the present and unveiled the scholarship.

SEC morning links

December, 19, 2014
1. After freshman running back Jalen Hurd was arrested by citation for underage drinking earlier this month, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said that Hurd was disciplined internally. According to a police report, police found a car with its lights on in a university dorm parking garage with an unconscious male inside. The man wasn't identified. It was a dumb mistake by a young player, and it sounds like Jones and his staff have or will take care of the up-and-coming standout for the Vols. Whether he'll miss any time in the Taxslayer Bowl against Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida, is unknown, but Jones did say that Hurd's arrest won't affect his status with the team.

2. Ole Miss will say goodbye to one of the school's most accomplished quarterbacks after the Rebels' Peach Bowl clash with No. 6 TCU in Atlanta on New Year's Eve. That quarterback is Bo Wallace, who as embattled as he has been has a chance to pass Eli Manning on the all-time wins list at Ole Miss, and he could be the first quarterback in school history to start and win three bowl games. That means that the Rebels will break in a new quarterback in 2015. You have three relatively inexperienced and inconsistent quarterbacks in Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincade and Jeremy Liggins. They'll all compete for that starting spot this spring, but they now have solid competition coming in junior college national champion Chad Kelly, who started his career at Clemson. The arrival of Kelly has ignited a little bit of a fire under those young quarterbacks during bowl prep week. Competition breeds excellence, right?

3. Texas A&M is still looking for a new defensive coordinator and will also be looking for a new offensive line coach. Coach Kevin Sumlin announced Thursday that offensive line coach B.J. Anderson won't return and won’t coach against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29. A line that was mostly dominant through the first two years of the Aggies' move to the SEC fell off considerably in 2014. Not having as talented a quarterback as Johnny Manziel under center didn't help, but the Aggies gave up 25 sacks and 61 tackles for loss. Also, don't forget that wide receivers coach David Beaty took the head-coaching job at Kansas. That leaves three openings for Sumlin to fill, but he said he's closer to making a decision on his next defensive coordinator and that the process has "picked up speed." So let the rumors fly! At least we know Will Muschamp won't be taking his talent to College Station ... well, not as wearing Aggies colors.

SEC morning links

December, 11, 2014
1. The race to replace senior Bo Wallace as Ole Miss’ quarterback just got a bit more interesting. ESPN JC50 prospect Chad Kelly committed to the Rebels on Wednesday, and the former Clemson backup will have two years to play two at Ole Miss. With Wallace, a three-year starter, leaving the team after the 2014 season, the Rebels had a huge question at quarterback for 2015. DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Kendrick Doss are all freshmen with limited game experience at best. Kelly adds a veteran presence to the group, having played in five games at Clemson in 2013, and he might become an immediate frontrunner Insider to claim the job once he arrives on campus.

2. It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that three of the five FBS assistant coaches who make more than $1 million per year reside in the SEC: Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Cam Cameron and John Chavis. This according to USA Today’s assistant coach salary database that it published on Wednesday. Not surprisingly, the SEC also had three of the top four highest-paid coaching staffs (LSU, Alabama and Auburn) and six of the top 13 (adding Texas A&M, South Carolina and Georgia). Take a look. They also have a database for head coaches (eight SEC coaches are in the top 20, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban) and a multiple-byline feature on assistants like Dennis Erickson and Greg Robinson who now make a comfortable living after once serving as head coaches.

3. The Jacobs Blocking Trophy -- which goes to the player selected by the SEC’s coaches as the league’s top blocker -- is one of the conference's oldest awards. LSU’s La’el Collins won the award on Wednesday, joining a list of dozens of winners who wound up playing in the NFL. Collins could already be doing that if he wanted. It was an option after he earned All-SEC honors as a junior, but unlike many of his teammates in recent seasons, Collins opted to play his senior season at LSU. It seems to have been a wise decision. Several publications have covered this territory already, but with college football’s underclassmen preparing to make their announcements on whether they will make early jumps to the pros, Collins serves as a good reminder of how players who return can sometimes help their cause. Because of an outstanding senior season, Collins will almost certainly be a much wealthier man for having waited than he would have been had he entered the 2014 draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. Insider and Todd McShay Insider both include Collins among their top 27 overall prospects. That leap doesn’t happen for every draft prospect who stays, but it’s a nice story -- and it’s a valuable lesson for players who are in similar positions this year.

Around the SEC

" More all-conference honors went out on Wednesday, with the SEC’s coaches naming their individual award winners and Athlon Sports posting its All-SEC team.

" With defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin preparing to coach Florida’s bowl game, the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley examines how interim coaches have fared in the past with the Gators.

" The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith explores whether Kentucky’s six-game losing streak to end the season will hurt the Wildcats on the recruiting trail.

" Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ new contract extension increases his buyout to $4 million should he choose to leave before March 2016.

Tweet of the day

SEC morning links

December, 4, 2014
1. Derek Mason had to make a move. So he released three coaches yesterday: offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell, wide receivers coach Marc Lubrick and strength coach Bill Hugham. While no one expected Vanderbilt to win many games his first year there, it wasn’t unreasonable to ask for a competitive football team. That didn’t happen as the Dores were blown out and lost every SEC game they played. They even lost to Temple by 30 and struggled to beat lowly Massachusetts and Charleston Southern. The problem goes beyond the coaching staff, though. Finding and settling on a quarterback this offseason is going to be paramount. So will recruiting. After having most of last year’s class hijacked by the departing James Franklin, Mason needs to find a way to infuse more talent into the program -- and quickly.

2. In other "As the Coaching World Turns" news, Tennessee is currently working on a new contract for coach Butch Jones, reports Tennessee AD Dave Hart told the site that those conversations are already underway and that, "It will get done in an appropriate fashion" since Jones' focus is on recruiting right now. Jones is already locked into a six-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $18 million, but as we all know by now, that's yesterday's news. Getting Jones under a new, more lucrative and extensive contract will help keep potential suitors at bay. The job he's done getting Tennessee on the right track and into a bowl game this early after the Derek Dooley debacle has not gone unnoticed. Keeping Jones in Knoxville and keeping that program on stable footing would be a wise move. With another stellar recruiting class, the development of last year's class and the maturation of QB Josh Dobbs, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Jones and Tennessee are among the leading contenders in the East next season. Of course, if they win it there will probably have to be a new contract after that.

3. Nick Saban has been calling for more involvement from receivers not named Amari Cooper all season. With good reason, the coach wants Alabama's offense to be more diverse, not just a one-page playbook with No. 9 scribbled in dozens of different languages. Part of that is on coordinator Lane Kiffin, part of it is on QB Blake Sims, but some of the blame rests with the supporting cast. And there's been no more obvious letdown than O.J. Howard. The freakishly athletic tight end was MIA for most of the season. For the first half of the year, you went to the grocery store expecting to see his face on the back of a milk carton. But it appears as if the 6-foot-6 sophomore has hit his stride. He hasn't been great -- seven catches in the past four games -- but it's a start. Howard says now that, "We're on the same page. We're clicking." The problem before? "Probably just not me going to get the ball out of the air," Howard said. "But now I've been doing a pretty good job of it, of going up and getting it and attacking the ball." That's good news for Alabama, which will face more intense scrutiny should it reach the playoff. The more options it has offensively, the better off it will be.

Changes aplenty between Hogs' SEC wins

November, 17, 2014
A lot changed during Arkansas' 17-game conference losing streak -- a slide that finally ended when the Razorbacks beat LSU 17-0 last Saturday night.

A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost $3.82 when Arkansas last won an SEC game, beating Kentucky 49-7 on Oct. 13, 2012. "Gone Girl" and the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series dominated the best-seller lists, two years before they became highly anticipated movies.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Allen
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBrandon Allen and the Razorbacks shut out LSU on Saturday. The win marked Arkansas' first conference victory since Oct. 13, 2012.
Bret Bielema was still winning Big Ten titles at Wisconsin. Now he's trying to become 2-13 in SEC play as Arkansas' head coach, having finally thrown the losing-streak monkey off his back.

Here are some notable ways the SEC changed during the 763 days that Arkansas went between conference victories:

Manziel becomes a phenomenon: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel had played in just three SEC games when Arkansas last won a conference game. By now we know he went on to win that season's Heisman Trophy as a freshman and was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2014, but the legend of Johnny Football was only starting to build at that point.

Two weeks before Arkansas' 2012 win against Kentucky, Manziel had set a Texas A&M record with 453 passing yards and three touchdown passes, plus 104 rushing yards and another score, in a 58-10 win against the Razorbacks.

Coaching changes aplenty: John L. Smith was Arkansas' coach when the streak started, and his departure after the 2012 season was only one in a handful of coaching changes that have occurred around the conference.

Arkansas (from Smith to Bielema), Auburn (from Gene Chizik to Gus Malzahn), Kentucky (from Joker Phillips to Mark Stoops), Tennessee (from Derek Dooley to Butch Jones) and Vanderbilt (from James Franklin to Derek Mason) have all changed head coaches since October 2012. Now Florida is on the verge of making it six schools to change coaches since then, following Sunday's announcement that Will Muschamp will not return in 2015.

Conference keeps rolling: The SEC would extend its string of consecutive BCS titles to seven when Alabama closed the 2012 season with a championship-game rout of Notre Dame. And Auburn nearly made it eight last season, although the Tigers allowed Florida State's Jameis Winston to lead a last-minute touchdown drive that gave the Seminoles the final title of the BCS era.

Nonetheless, the SEC's run as the preeminent conference in college football continued throughout the time that Arkansas failed to win a league game.

The conference went 13-6 in bowl games between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, easily the best winning percentage among major conferences, and placed seven teams in the final Associated Press Top 25 after both seasons.

The SEC also dominated the NFL draft, with 63 players picked in the 2013 draft -- more than double the number from any other conference -- and 49 more getting selected earlier this year. That includes this year's No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina and 10 other first-round picks from SEC schools.

Nick Saban's Alabama remained the league's toughest program throughout Arkansas' slide. Not only did it win the 2012 BCS title, but it posted a 16-3 mark in SEC play during the same period that Arkansas was 0-17.

Auburn's fall and rise: Auburn was en route to arguably the worst season in school history on Oct. 13, 2012, having lost 24-7 to Arkansas a week earlier. The Tigers would go 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play only two seasons after winning the BCS title and Chizik would be dismissed after the season.

Auburn would replace Chizik with his former offensive coordinator, Malzahn, who rose to fame as a high school coach in Arkansas and who spent the 2006 season as the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator. Malzahn led one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history last season, pushing Auburn to an SEC title and a spot against Florida State in the BCS championship game.

Hogs finally break through: Arkansas certainly dealt with its share of uncertainty in Bielema's first season on campus, closing 2013 with a school-record nine-game losing streak that included some unsightly blowouts. However, the Razorbacks closed the 2013 season with a pair of close losses and regularly hung with their toughest conference opponents this fall.

The outcomes were all the same, of course, as loss after loss piled up even when the Hogs would fall by only one point against Alabama or by a touchdown against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. But Arkansas' results finally changed last Saturday when their defense dominated LSU and the offense did just enough to claim ownership of the "Golden Boot" trophy that goes to the winner of the annual LSU-Arkansas game.

Many college football analysts had insisted throughout the season that an improved Arkansas was on the verge of breaking through under Bielema, and Saturday's LSU win was the confirmation the Razorbacks' coach needed. Now he has the chance to launch his first SEC winning streak as the Hogs' coach when No. 10 Ole Miss visits Fayetteville on Saturday.
With Mississippi State-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia on the slate, it’s easy to overlook Saturday’s matchup in Knoxville between Tennessee and Kentucky. But don’t be fooled. It’s a pivotal game for both programs.

Bowl eligibility is on the line, and for second-year coaches Butch Jones and Mark Stoops, that’s the next step in the rebuilding process.

“We’re playing a team that comes in -- there’s no mistake about it -- we all know they’re fighting for the same thing we’re fighting for,” Jones said. “So it comes down to execution, playing our style of play and having a mentality. But execution is the biggest thing, and I know Coach Stoops is telling his team the same thing.”

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsBowl eligibility seemed assured for Mark Stoops and the Wildcats a month ago, but four straight losses have changed that.
Playing for a bowl game seems crazy for a tradition-rich program like Tennessee, but the Volunteers haven’t played in one since the 2010 Music City Bowl. They were on the verge last year, Jones’ first year as coach, but four straight losses down the stretch put an end to that and pushed the goal back a year.

This season, the chances looked bleak, but a memorable come-from-behind victory at South Carolina two weeks ago gave the Vols hope. Now, sitting at 4-5, they have games left against Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, and six wins doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

“The more you win the more that’s at stake,” Jones said, referring back to the South Carolina game. “So what do you do? Does that drive you more? Are you satisfied with it? Last year, I believe we got satisfied at times, and there was nothing to be satisfied for -- where now we’ve put ourselves in position for a postseason opportunity. Go take advantage of it.”

At 5-5, Kentucky is one step closer to that elusive sixth win and the opportunity to play in a bowl game, but the Wildcats are trending in the opposite direction. They have lost four straight games and what looked like a foregone conclusion a month ago now feels as though it might not happen. They’re heading down the same path Tennessee did a year ago.

Stoops has preached the same message to his team all season. It’s not as much about wins and losses as it is about improving every single day. But even he says he’ll try and use that sixth win as motivation for this team heading into Saturday’s game.

“I think it’s OK to talk about that,” Stoops said. “Whatever, by any means necessary, to get our team motivated to go out and play a good game this week -- we’ll try it all.

“Our team knows. They want a sixth win. It’s important. We do discuss it a little bit, but that shouldn’t be your primary motivation. You should be motivated to go out and play because it’s a rival and it’s a big SEC opponent on the road.”

Kentucky’s last bowl game also came after the 2010 season when the Wildcats lost to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

At the end of the day, Saturday’s game might not look all that enticing. It’s not determining a division race. It certainly has no playoff implications. But for two upstart programs on the rise, it means everything.

SEC morning links

November, 11, 2014
In case you haven't heard, Todd Gurley is back. The Georgia running back returns to the lineup from a four-game suspension stemming from an autograph investigation. Make no mistake, even with Nick Chubb's success in his absence, Gurley is starting, per Mark Richt. If you're excited about Gurley's return (even if you're not) this hype video should get the juices flowing. Gurley's return creates an interesting situation for the Bulldogs though. There's one football, but several talented running backs: Gurley, Chubb and Sony Michel. It's a good problem to have if you're Richt.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones and his family tried to have some pleasurable non-football time during the Volunteers' off week but couldn't quite pull it off. The family went to a dinner on Saturday night with a no-cell phone policy but before long, Jones discovered them all checking their phones under the table for college football score updates. "I think we're kind of a messed-up family," Jones joked. That story could probably apply to a lot of coaching families across the county. When in a demanding, high-profile position like Jones is, it's hard to unplug, even for those around the coach whose lives are affected by his career.

Mississippi State might be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but oddsmakers see them as an underdog. The Bulldogs don't seem to be bothered by the label. This is a big-time "prove-it" game for this program. Two years ago they also went into Tuscaloosa undefeated and left with a convincing defeat that sent their promising season south. Now they are eyeing a different ending, with the stakes much higher this time around.

Around the SEC
Tweets of the day

SEC morning links

November, 10, 2014
Good Monday to you all. It's another big week in the SEC highlighted by the biggest game to date this season on the docket: No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 5 Alabama. Both teams control their own destiny in the playoff race considering the strength of their schedules in the final weeks of the season. What an afternoon it should be. Mississippi State is eager. You can believe that Alabama will be, too, although the Crimson Tide are coming off a more taxing affair, having to grind out a 20-13 overtime win over LSU in Death Valley, one that prompted a lot of OMGs to one Terry Saban. It was a night that wasn't pretty for Blake Sims, until the end when it mattered most, when he got the job done. Quarterback play is always critical but is even more magnified in big games and close games. Expect the same Saturday when Sims and Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott square off.

This season hasn't turned out as planned for South Carolina. A preseason top-10 ranking which followed three consecutive seasons of at least 11 wins set expectations high, but the Gamecocks have come nowhere near meeting them, limping along at 4-5 (2-5 in the SEC). One can only wonder the affect it has on veteran coach Steve Spurrier, whose frustration was visible after the normally talkative coach left his news conference after his team's loss to Tennessee after less than a minute. What of the 69-year-old coach's future? Spurrier declined to elaborate on his plans for next season when asked Sunday, saying he's going to "quit commenting on that." (For what it's worth, he told last week that he plans to return in 2015). Next up for the Gamecocks is a clash with Florida, a team that has won two straight.

It was only one performance, but it was a memorable one for Texas A&M true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen. All he did was throw four touchdowns and lead the Aggies to a 41-38 win over No. 3 Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Allen was the top-ranked pocket passer in the 2014 recruiting class. He showed why he was so highly regarded on ”That is why we recruited him and that is why he is here,” Texas A&M receiver Malcome Kennedy said afterward. Based on his play Saturday, Allen likely earned himself the chance to start the Aggies' next game against Missouri and perhaps the rest of the season. And the win? It salvaged a season that was turning ugly.

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Lil Jon visits Butch Jones, Tennessee

November, 9, 2014
The godfather of college football's de facto theme song had himself quite a weekend in Tennessee.

Lil Jon visited Knoxville on Sunday, meeting coach Butch Jones and his players and sitting in on a Volunteers practice. Neyland Stadium has adopted his hit, "Turn Down for What," this season, changing it to "Third Down for What" on opponents' third downs. The hit, co-produced with DJ Snake, has carried on throughout college football stadiums all season long.

The result of Lil Jon's visit was predictably wild, as he apparently got one Tennessee teacher to rid her students of homework, a promise fulfilled since she met the rap star.

Highlights of the trip were posted across social media Sunday. Not bad a bye weekend for the Volunteers.

Who wouldn’t want to be Joshua Dobbs right now? He’s working on his aeronautical engineering degree; he hung out with Peyton Manning this summer; and after Saturday’s overtime win at South Carolina, he’s quickly becoming a celebrity around campus.

Life is good for the Tennessee quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Dobbs
AP Photo/Richard ShiroLed by QB Joshua Dobbs, the Vols have 13 freshmen or sophomores in the starting lineup.
“People recognized me before, but I would say it’s definitely picked up,” Dobbs said Tuesday. “People have just been congratulating me on the win, telling me good performance. I’m thankful to have the support of classmates.”

Dobbs even got a standing ovation when he walked into one of his classes this week. Can you blame his fellow students for getting excited? After 301 passing yards, 166 rushing yards and five touchdowns against the Gamecocks, it looks as if the Volunteers have found their quarterback of the future.

It hasn’t always been that way, though.

Dobbs was forced into action last year as a freshman, and it didn’t go as well. His first start, he threw two interceptions in a 31-3 loss at Missouri. He finished with six picks in five games, and his only touchdowns came in the season finale against Kentucky.

But Dobbs learned from that experience. He took positives away from his struggles.

“One of the major things I took away was what it takes to be a successful quarterback in the SEC,” he said. “Just preparation off the field to practice habits to habits in the weight room and how those translate to being successful on game day.”

“He’s a very poised young man, and our football team believes in him,” added Tennessee coach Butch Jones. “I do think that he’s relying on the experiences that he was able to gain last year. I think that’s really benefited him, and I think that’s really helped his confidence.”

It also helped that Dobbs had a full offseason to work with his coaches and teammates. He went through spring practice. He worked out with Manning over the summer in what he called a “humbling experience.” And now he has an opportunity with starting quarterback Justin Worley out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.

The Vols are sitting at 4-5, and Dobbs has a chance to lead them to that elusive bowl game with two wins in the final three games. They host Kentucky a week from Saturday.

But bowl game or no bowl game, it’s hard not to look ahead at how good this Tennessee team will be next year and the year after that and even the year after that. With Dobbs under center, they now have 13 freshmen or sophomores in the starting lineup, and a total of 23 true freshmen that have played this season, the most of any FBS program.

The Vols also have 26 commitments for 2015 and the No. 6 recruiting class per ESPN.

“The future is definitely bright,” Dobbs said. “You can see it this year. We’re coming together. We have a lot of youth on offense and defense, and we’re improving each week.”

The key, though, was finding that quarterback because for the most part, the SEC is still a quarterback-driven league. Now it’s up to Dobbs to build on his five-touchdown performance at South Carolina and play at that level every week.

“[Saturday] was a building block,” Jones said. “This is his second game now. We’ve really challenged him in terms of his accuracy and throwing the football and just [having] a very high level of consistency each and every day, which we take great pride in.”

Nobody said playing quarterback at Tennessee was going to be easy, but life as Joshua Dobbs isn’t so bad right now.