It’s the most dangerous game Tennessee football could play. The Vols are ranked No. 3 and likely have a top five matchup a week from Saturday in a game to decide the SEC East and College Football Playoff.
Before they get there, though, they have to get past the Kentucky Wildcats. Looking ahead of any team is bad enough. It’s worse when that team is in the top 25 and coming off a bye.
Josh Heupel has done a great job of managing the Vols’ approach to every game this year. Now he has to make sure this isn’t a “trap” game for his players and that they don’t look ahead to the Georgia Bulldogs.
“It doesn’t matter how you phrase it,” he said in his Thursday press conference. “The only one that matters as a competitor is the next one, right? Everybody is talking about the last one. You’re only as good as your next performance.”
Kentucky would be undefeated right now if not for an injury to Will Levis and a slew of mistakes that cost them in a one-score loss to the Ole Miss Rebels. Mark Stoops knows how to make games ugly.
When taking that into account, Tennessee football could fall apart without proper focus. That’s exactly where they thrive. However, as Heupel noted, the Vols have had great leadership all year, starting with Hendon Hooker.
“If something hasn’t been right, it hasn’t always been a coach or me that has to call the group up and get it right,” Heupel said when referencing the team’s leadership. “They are taking ownership. You see it on the practice field in the way that they coach each other.”
One huge reason the Vols can’t afford to relax is that they still aren’t as deep as your typical top five team. We have to remember that they are 20 months removed from losing a wave of transfers from a 3-7 team.
He’s been a miracle worker, but Heupel hasn’t fully restocked the roster yet. That’s more evident than anywhere at defensive back, which has struggled, is now banged up and is facing an NFL-caliber quarterback in Levis.
Something that could help the Vols take control, though, is a fast start. Last year, they scored a touchdown on their first play from scrimmage at Kentucky. However, Heupel, never one to overreact, downplayed that.
“Would we love to get off to a fast start? Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “But you guys have seen games unfold differently. And you’ve just got to keep playing.”
Fast starts haven’t been as necessary this year. Most of the time, the Vols did their damage in the second quarter, which represents a bit of a shift.
That goes back to the leadership qualities Heupel discussed. He noted that the team leaders have done a great job of making sure they regroup when things go wrong.
Staying focused and preparing right was key for Tennessee football in the big moments, and it’ll be big for them to avoid making Kentucky a “trap” game. Heupel expressed faith in his team to do that.
“What’s been great about this team, the reason it’s one week at a time up to this point, we’ve been able to find a way to be the best team on the field, is their preparation and the way they’ve practiced,” he said. “Then at the end of the day you’ve got to go cut it loose on game day and play harder for longer than your opponent.”