So the winless Vols are taking nothing for granted Saturday (noon, SEC Network) when they welcome Football Championship Subdivision program Chattanooga (1-1) to Neyland Stadium before beginning Southeastern Conference competition next week.
Tennessee desperately needs a victory after producing its first 0-2 start since 1988, when the Vols lost their first six games before rallying to finish 5-6.
“The real character, who you are, kind of shows up in these times,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “I like the people in our program, I’ve said it all along. I like this team and I don’t believe the leadership in our program is going to waver one bit.”
Tennessee is facing a coach with connections to the program that started its torment. Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright spent the last two seasons as an assistant on Shawn Elliott’s staff at Georgia State, which stunned 26-point favorite Tennessee 38-30 in the season opener for both teams.
Wright understands what it would take to produce an even bigger upset this week.
“You’ve got to get lucky,” he said. “You’ve got to create your own luck. You watch that Georgia State film, Georgia State got lucky four or five times. There’s guys running wide open who don’t get the ball. A back falls down.”
Tennessee believes it has made progress since that dreadful performance, even though its record doesn’t reflect it.
After being outrushed 213-93 by Georgia State, Tennessee controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage against BYU last week. The Vols lost that game 29-26 in double overtime after a defensive breakdown enabled the Cougars to deliver a 64-yard completion that set up a game-tying field goal with one second left in regulation.
Tennessee can’t afford to slip up again this week because it follows the Chattanooga game by facing No. 9 Florida, No. 3 Georgia, Mississippi State and No. 2 Alabama.
“Everybody’s pushing each other up and not just pointing fingers saying it’s one person’s fault or one side of the ball’s fault,” Tennessee receiver Marquez Callaway said. “We’re all taking ownership.”
Here are some other things to watch Saturday when Tennessee hosts Chattanooga:
Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano threw just three interceptions and lost two fumbles all of last season, but he’s been less careful with the ball this year.
Guarantano was intercepted and lost a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Georgia State game. He was picked off early in the third quarter last week that set up a touchdown and helped BYU rally from a 13-3 halftime deficit.
Chattanooga’s Nick Tiano has thrown two interceptions and only one touchdown pass this season. He completed only half his pass attempts last week in a 41-20 loss to Jacksonville State.
Freshman Ailym Ford is Chattanooga’s leading rusher with 177 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries. Ford may find himself running into Tennessee freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o, whose 15 tackles put him in a tie for the team lead.
Tennessee has its own productive freshman running back in Eric Gray, who has 106 yards rushing and 56 yards receiving. Gray complements junior Ty Chandler, who ran for 154 yards against BYU.
RECEIVERS TO WATCH
The Vols’ Jauan Jennings has 11 catches for 196 yards and three touchdowns. The Mocs’ Bryce Nunnelly has 14 receptions for 187 yards this year after catching 79 passes for 1,237 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
VOLS SEEKING TURNOVERS
Tennessee has committed four turnovers but has only one takeaway so far this season. Pruitt says the turnover margin has made the difference in UT’s first two games.
MOCS’ VETERAN LINE
Chattanooga has an experienced offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack this season. That group faces a Tennessee defense that sacked BYU quarterback Zach Wilson four times and pressured him throughout last week’s game.