Tennessee coach Butch Jones encourages his team from the sideline during their game against Georgia on Oct. 5 in Knoxville. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee has reached the midway point of football season with the same 3-3 record it had at this time last year.
The Volunteers believe the similarities end there.
Tennessee stumbled down the stretch last season and finished 5-7, a third straight losing season that resulted in the firing of former coach Derek Dooley. The Vols (3-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) say they’ve made major strides under new coach Butch Jones, even though it’s not reflected in their record.
“The difference is we’re one step closer to winning,” sophomore safety LaDarrell McNeil said.
Tennessee cites as evidence last week’s 34-31 overtime loss to Georgia, which fell from No. 6 to No. 7 in the Top 25 after the game. The Vols rallied from a 17-3 halftime deficit and led late in the fourth quarter before allowing a tying touchdown with five seconds left in regulation.
“We’ve been telling everyone (and) it finally showed,” senior defensive end Jacques Smith said. “This is a good football team, and finally people are believing.”
Tennessee will win more believers when it finally starts winning more games. After all, they also came close in losses to ranked opponents Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina last year.
The Vols have lost 19 straight games against ranked foes and are 1-25 against the Top 25 since 2008. Tennessee is 2-16 in SEC competition since 2011.
Tennessee will try to reverse those trends when it returns from its off week. The Vols host No. 14 South Carolina on Oct. 19 and visit top-ranked Alabama and No. 25 Missouri the next two weeks.
Senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp was asked this week if the Vols needed to learn how to win these types of games. He spun his response in a different direction.
“You’ve got to learn how not to lose first,” Sapp said. “We’ve got to limit those critical mistakes that ... put us in a predicament to lose those games.”
Indeed, Tennessee was penalized twice in Georgia’s game-tying drive last week and fumbled on its overtime possession. Tennessee also committed six turnovers in a 31-17 loss to No. 17 Florida. But the Vols generally have done a better job of avoiding mistakes in Jones’ first season.
They have the fewest penalty yards per game of any SEC team. They also have a positive turnover margin.
“I think we’re playing harder now than we ever have,” junior quarterback Justin Worley said.
The Vols say they also haven’t gotten down on themselves. They’re encouraged by the way they performed against Georgia. Instead of wondering whether they’re repeating the frustrations of the past, the Vols are focusing on the present.
“We aren’t going to worry about last season,” junior linebacker A.J. Johnson said. “We’re on this season. That’s the big thing. We’re staying focused. Nobody’s hanging their heads or anything like that.”
Johnson is the leading tackler for an improved defense. Although the Vols are allowing 28 points per game, they lead the SEC and are tied for sixth place among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in takeaways.
Tennessee has additional reasons for optimism.
Rajion Neal has rushed for 317 yards over his last two games. Michael Palardy ranks eighth nationally in punting and has gone 5 of 6 on field-goal attempts. A school-record five true freshmen have scored touchdowns for the Vols this season.
“I can see our players believing in what’s going on,” Jones said. “They’re getting better and better and better.”