KNOXVILLE - Tennessee might be winding down its final week of regular-season practice, but the mentality has remained on winning Saturday to keep the season alive.
"We better be," head coach Derek Dooley said of whether or not his Vols are ready for Saturday's game at Kentucky. "We certainly have a lot at stake. We're kind of in the playoffs. We play and if we win, we keep going. If we lose, we pack it up and go home. A lot to play for and I hope we can come out and play our best."
Although the Vols hold the momentum in the series, winning 26 consecutive games, the only numbers that matter are the ones that fall under the scope of the 2011 season.
"They're not much different from our team," Dooley said after Wednesday's practice at Neyland Stadium. "They really aren't. Our records are similar. It's a one game difference, but it's the same in the SEC. They've had their struggles. They've had some injuries. We're in a very similar situation. We couldn't be complacent on anybody because we've shown no ability to go out there and dominate."
The Vols are facing a similar situation as they did heading into last week's game against Vanderbilt, having to win to keep their chances of playing in a bowl alive.
After conquering that test, 27-21, in overtime, Tennessee is preparing the same way.
"They've been the same," Dooley said. "I don't think it's been a bad week. I don't think it's been much different on their approach and I think in some ways, that's a good thing. You don't want to have too much anxiety over one game. We had a lot at stake last week too and we had a good workmanlike approach and we had the same approach this week."
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is focused on defending the Kentucky offense this week and that begins with the Wildcats' double-barrel action at signal caller in recent starter Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton, who started the first eight games of season before suffering an injury against Mississippi State on Oct. 29. Smith was banged up in the Cats' loss to Georgia on Saturday, but is expected to play.
"We have to have a plan for both," Wilcox said. "That is how we have approached it. To this point we have played both types of quarterbacks so it is not anything new, it is taking some of the things we have done in each of those games and kind of piece together what we would do for each guy."
Since entering the line-up as the Wildcats primary quarterback early in the Mississippi State game, Smith has performed well, completing 57 percent of his passes along with four touchdowns. The true freshman's 283 passing yards vs. Ole Miss in his career-start on Nov. 5 earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors as he broke UK's single-game freshman passing mark.
Newton had been sidelined with ankle and should injuries, but returned to play against Georgia last week after missing the previous two games. A junior, Newton is a dual threat as he has 272 rushing yards in his nine games this season along with 1,764 passing yards.
"They are very good schematically. They give you a lot of different issues," said Wilcox. "They have a couple of quarterbacks they play, one is more of a thrower and then other guy is more of a run pass threat."
The Wildcats have an experienced offensive line that includes three seniors and two juniors, all weighing more than 295 pounds. On the outside, they are also experienced, as they start a senior and two juniors at receiver while the starting tight end Nick Melillo is also a senior.
"The O-line is veteran, they are big physical guys," said Wilcox. "They have size at wide-out and we haven't always matched up versus bigger guys that well. So that is a concern for us. They do a very good job schematically too; they are going to get in good plays. They are going to get their guys in good positions. We have to be on point and play well or else they could score the ball."
With the Tennessee secondary banged up, Wilcox is very aware of the challenge that a veteran receiver corps can present for the Vols on Saturday.
"The next guy has to step up and carry the flag," said Wilcox. "At this point in the season that will happen. A couple guys are getting more reps than they had prior, but that is what we need to do and we expect those guys to go out and play well."
PULLING OUT THE PISTOL
By this point in the season, a team's offensive system is usually pretty well established with just minor tweaks being made during the week. Not so for the Vols, albeit by necessity more than anything.
With quarterback Tyler Bray working his way back from a fractured thumb and struggling to take snaps under center, Tennessee added the pistol formation to its repertoire last week against Vanderbilt with somewhat surprisingly positive results.
After entering the contest against the Commodores averaging just 91.9 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry on the ground, the pistol formation seemed to give the Big Orange a boost, especially in the ground game where senior Tauren Poole and sophomore Rajion Neal combined for 136 yards on just 25 carries for an average of 5.44 per rush.
UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney devised the game plan and noted a number of advantages it provided, but also wasn't quite ready to give the new formation all the credit.
"I think the disguise of where the ball is going sometimes is better," UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "It's new, so they didn't get a lot of reps working against us and (our) play action passes off of it tended to be a little bit better it looked to me like during the ball game. Obviously it frees up Tyler from being under center with a damaged thumb. It benefited us. I think it was a little change-up.
"I thought we blocked for (Tauren) a little bit better and when you block better, the run game tends to work a little bit better. Obviously the production was a little bit better than it has been. You can't say (the pistol formation) was all of it, but you can't say it wasn't the reason either. I'm comfortable with it and it seemed like it worked so we'll continue down that path."
Having never coached the pistol formation before, Chaney went to the original source for a quick tutorial.
"We looked at some of the Nevada stuff," Chaney said. "We looked at it, not so much schematically in the blocking assignments because we kept the same assignments, but the mechanics in the backfield more than anything. I haven't been too familiar with it. It was kind of a week where Tyler might be able to play and he can't hardly take a snap, so `duh,' let's put him in the gun and see what we can get done. And it is tied in to what we are trying to get done."
The new tactic will remain part of UT's arsenal for now, but an ultimate determination on its continued existence in the Volunteer playbook will require more data and study once the year is done.
"Right now let's keep going with it because it worked a little bit," Chaney said. "Let's keep rolling and we'll definitely study it in the offseason a little bit more, which we have already a little bit. We just continue to see how it evolves and where it grows. For my own personal good, I'll probably look at it a little bit more just for my own knowledge so if this happens again I will be a little more prepared when it does."