KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Butch Jones doesn’t think he ever got home earlier than 11:30 p.m. last week while preparing for Western Kentucky.
He might not return before midnight anytime in the next six weeks.
After opening the season with two lopsided victories, the Volunteers face ranked opponents in five of their next six games.
The gauntlet starts Saturday at No. 2 Oregon. The Vols (2-0) follow that up by traveling to No. 18 Florida. Tennessee then has three straight home games against South Alabama, No. 9 Georgia and No. 13 South Carolina before visiting No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 26.
“The real tests are starting to come,” Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said Saturday after rushing for three touchdowns in a 52-20 triumph over Western Kentucky. “That’s where we’re really going to be able to take strides and see where we are.”
Tennessee hasn’t fared well lately when it faced similarly demanding stretches.
The Vols played four straight games against ranked opponents last year — No. 5 Georgia, No. 19 Mississippi State, No. 1 Alabama and No. 17 South Carolina — and lost them all. They lost four straight in 2011 while playing consecutive games against eventual SEC Eastern Division champion Georgia, No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama and No. 14 South Carolina.
Former coach Derek Dooley was fired last November in part because of his 0-15 record against Top 25 teams. Tennessee has lost its last 16 games against ranked foes since beating No. 21 South Carolina 31-13 on Oct. 31, 2009. One encouraging statistic regarding Saturday’s game: Tennessee owns a 7-7-1 record against teams ranked second.
“It’s going to be a big test, to see if our team has glued together,” Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson said.
Tennessee believes it’s better this year.
The Vols have been more disciplined thus far, as they’ve committed a total of two penalties in their first two games. They’re more opportunistic, as evidenced by the fact they converted seven Western Kentucky turnovers into 38 points Saturday. The Vols are tied with Arizona State for fewest penalties per game of any Football Bowl Subdivision team, and they’re tied with Tulane for most takeaways.
They’re also more poised. When Western Kentucky scored two touchdowns in the last seven minutes of the first half to cut Tennessee’s 31-3 lead to 31-17, the Vols responded by outscoring the Hilltoppers 21-3 in the second half. That represented a sharp contrast from Tennessee’s late home collapses against Florida and Missouri last season.
“I remember last year in the Florida game, I could feel the tides turning and it felt like somehow there was nothing we could do about it,” Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. “This year, it feels different.”
But they still must prove they’re good enough to compete with ranked foes that aren’t likely to give the ball away as often as Western Kentucky did last season. The first step is dealing with Oregon’s breakneck pace and point-a-minute offense. When these two teams faced each other three years ago in Knoxville, Oregon won 48-13 by scoring the game’s final 45 points.
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to be in the best shape we’ve ever been in. It’s a long trip, but it’s going to be a great opportunity.”
It’s the type of opportunity that could keep him in the film room all night.