Dealing with Tennessee’s 2013 football schedule is a lot like dealing with an ice storm: You’re reasonably safe at home but the road can be really treacherous.
Butch Jones knows this. His 2013 Vols already fell 59-14 at No. 2 Oregon, 31-17 at No. 19 Florida and 45-10 last Saturday at No. 1 Alabama. Having played poorly each time, Tennessee hopes for a better showing this Saturday at No. 10 Missouri.
Jones said his team must develop “championship habits … what it takes to really prepare yourself to go play on the road in a tough environment versus a tough opponent.”
The head man thought his players exhibited some nerves in their first three road trips, especially in last weekend’s loss at Tuscaloosa.
“We had a lot of anxiety,” he said. “Anxiety can affect you in a negative sense in terms of freezing up, not playing your fastest. It consumes you and creates hesitation. I thought times we had hesitation, especially in the first half (en route to a 35-0 deficit).”
Jones believes success on the road “starts in your week of preparation … understanding what you’re up against,” adding: “Our road games have been against some high-quality, high-caliber opponents.”
That’s true but life on the road tends to be difficult, whether the opponent is nationally ranked or not. Jones’ Volunteer predecessors can attest to that.
Johnny Majors went 34-25-2 in road games as Tennessee’s head man from 1977 through ‘92. If you discount the games against perennial SEC also-rans Kentucky and Vanderbilt his road record was 21-22-2.
Phillip Fulmer inherited a strong Big Orange program and went 50-23-1 in road games between 1993 and 2008. If you ignore 8-0 road marks against Kentucky and Vandy, however, he was a less imposing 34-23-1.
Lane Kiffin found road games troublesome in 2009, his lone year on The Hill. He lost competitively at Florida (23-13) and Alabama (12-10) but got blown out at Ole Miss (42-17) before eking out a tight win (30-24) at Kentucky.
That brings us to Derek Dooley, whose 2-11 road record at Tennessee included humbling losses at both Kentucky (7-10 in 2011) and Vanderbilt (18-41 in 2012). He never won a road game outside the state boundaries – his two victories coming at Memphis (50-14) and at Vandy (24-10) in 2010.
Jones, who enjoyed success away from home at previous stops Central Michigan and Cincinnati, says keeping a sharp focus is half the battle for a road team.
“Everywhere we’ve been we’ve taken great pride in the ability to win on the road,” he recalled. “Championship football teams have the ability to block out all of the external factors and go on the road and win games.”
Tennessee has a senior-laden line on offense and a senior-laden front seven on defense. The Vols are young at most other positions, however, so they tend to tense up in hostile environments.
“Each team is different,” Jones said. “Each team has different personalities…. We try to keep the same routine, whether it’s at home or on the road. I think it’s just a maturity level. I think it’s a business-like approach.”
Tennessee’s lack of road success this fall is no surprise considering that all three foes were nationally ranked. The home slate hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park, either. The Vols have faced the third-toughest schedule nationally based on the winning percentage of their opponents (.721). Only Purdue (.735) and Utah (.727) rank higher. Tennessee’s schedule strength will soar even higher after facing Missouri (7-1) and Auburn (7-1) the next two weekends.
“Moving this program forward, it’s been a grind,” Jones conceded. “It’s been a mental grind. It’s been a physical grind. We’ve got seven (ranked) teams on the schedule. It’s (taxing) having to play your best game, week in and week out.”
Still, the head man believes the gridiron gauntlet will pay dividends someday.
“I think this experience is going to prove to be extremely beneficial as we continue to grow and develop our football program,” he said. “There’s a lot of powerful learning experiences … some negative.”
Losing decisively away from home is one of those negative experiences. Ultimately, there’s only one cure for Tennessee’s road woes:
“In order to be a good road team,” Jones said, “you have to be able to get the first one.”