KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- With the thrills of the then #11 South Carolina victory in the distant past, Team 117 took to the practice field Tuesday with one goal: forget the past and win each week.
"First of all you shouldn't need any motivation," said Vols head coach Butch Jones. "You're playing the best of the best in the country. The next evolution of this football team is learning how to win on the road."
Jones' Volunteers will have their work cut out for them as the head into Tuscaloosa, Ala. Looking to take down their second consecutive ranked opponent in the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide. For the Tennessee team it may not be as daunting as it may seem. The Vols have visited #2 Oregon and then #19 Florida on the road.
"Each week is a new season in and of itself," Jones said. "Each week takes on a life of itself and that's where we've tried to educate our younger players. The game planning changes. It's that mental effort, that mental intensity, that high level of preparation that goes into it so we really, really have stressed that. Up to this point in time our players have done a good job with that."
Saturday's victory was a historic win for the first year head coach. Jones said that he allowed the players to celebrate for 24 hours, his staff for 12 hours, but himself only 45 minutes. He recognizes the importance of the upcoming matchup with Alabama, but is firm that every day is business as usual.
"It's all in how we conduct and manage our business and that's just win number four," he said. "It's an evolution and that's our players understanding that the more you win, the more that's at stake."
Saturday will mark the 96th meeting between the two SEC heavyweights dating back to even before when General Robert Neyland roamed the Tennessee sidelines.
The last time Tennessee came out of Tuscaloosa with a victory was a 2003, 51-43, five overtime shootout and a Vol victory Saturday would snap a 10-game road losing streak which includes 9 straight SEC road losses.
However, history doesn't affect the upcoming grudge match in Jones' mind.
"I haven't had to ask anyone [about the rivalry]," said Jones. "That occurred on Dec. 7 and that's been a leading up process and this rivalry is very special to us, it's very special to all of our former players and it's very special to the entire Vol nation.
"We have to go on the road and play in some great hostile environments. Everything is your preparation and being mentally tough."
Running backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are so much so a one-two punch that they tackled their media availability on Tuesday night in the same fashion, side-by-side.
Neal and Lane have coupled for 1,028 yards on the ground this season with Neal recording 693 (24th nationally, T-4th SEC) and Lane notching 335 (24th SEC).
Though there is competition in practice, there is no selfishness once the Vols hit the gridiron on Saturdays.
"I think everybody needs a running mate," said Neal. "We do a great job of running together. There isn't any me first, I'm first. We try and feed off of each other and both go."
"A good example was the second scoring drive [against South Carolina]," continued Neal. "Marlin got it started off, we had a couple of good runs, I came in right behind him, had a couple good runs and scored. I think that right there is what we have the most fun doing. Going in after each other, feeding and just trying to see who can finish it. It is exciting. Our coach always tells us, you are only as strong as the guy behind you."
Lane agrees with Neal and loves the competition the duo faces day-in and day-out.
"We push each other," said Lane. "We compete at practice, we talk to each other off the field. I'll send him texts through the week and tell him what he thinks about getting 100 yards a piece this game. Keep pushing each other. Let's keep going."
Though the twosome are from different states, they have known each other for a long time initially running into each other at elite running back camps in high school.
"A lot of people don't know is that me and Marlin knew each other before coming to Tennessee together through the top camps and things like that," said Neal. "We are pretty familiar with each other. We know how to cut up and turn it on when you need to. It is some pretty thick competition. One thing he always tells me is if I don't finish he is going to get it."
Though Lane and Neal have only known each other for a handful of years, they have a brotherly bond.
"I don't remember exactly when I met him but I would say it was my sophomore year in high school," said Lane. "I ended up coming here and it was like we knew each other since we were little. That is the best part about being his teammate."
Though wide receiver Marquez North finished the game with a team-high 102 yards on Saturday, it was sophomore Pig Howard who helped the Vols to continually be in a position to score as he reeled in career high eight catches against South Carolina.
One of those catches came during a second-and-goal situation as Howard took a Justin Worley throw to the gut and held on for the touchdown.
"Our offense is made for the slot receiver to have a lot of catches," said Howard. "I already knew and had the heads up of what was coming during the season."
Howard knew the catches were coming, which meant he knew the hits were coming. And he took them, holding on to multiple passes after being smashed into by South Carolina defenders.
One man pleased with Howard, the head guy in charge. Butch Jones.
"He has really improved him route running technique, he is looking the tuck, he is protecting the football," said Jones. "I can't say enough about him. This week we are going up against one of the best secondary in the country so we are going to see a lot of man coverage, a lot one on one matchups and it is going to be a next step for him. But I have been pleased with his progression so far."
Howard is ready for Alabama this week, developing confidence after his last two weeks of play.
"It does help, as you can see it helped from Georgia as well," said Howard. "But we aren't focused on last weeks' success because that is in the past. If we think about that too much, we will sleep on Alabama. This is a great team that we have to get ready for, and we plan on getting better each and every day."
Jones knows that Howard has, and will continue to, step it up as the Vols prepare for Alabama this week.
"Alton has really stepped up and he continues to get better and better," said Jones. "It is in direct correlation to his work habits in practice. The last couple weeks he has performed as well as I have seen him perform in practice. I liked the way his mental approach has been in the meetings, the way he has taken it to the practice field and that is the reason he is performing on Saturdays. I like his overall approach."
Howard knows he has a tough test ahead of him and is pretty familiar with the Alabama defense as his cousin is Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.
"Alabama's defense will play off of our offense," said Howard. "Whatever we give them, that is what they will give us. They are very well coached, and based off of certain information, they know what defense to get in. We have to play the game our style and out effort them."
Jones knows that Howard will out effort anyone right now.
"He is performing at a very high level of consistency," said Jones. "His decision making process has been outstanding."
BELIEF & CONFIDENCE
After allowing 687 total yards at Oregon in week three, including 471 through the air, the Tennessee defense and specifically its secondary began turning things around.
In back-to-back games, the Vols held Aaron Murray - the SEC's all-time leader in total yards - to fewer than 200 yards passing and South Carolina's Connor Shaw to just seven completions.
With momentum on its side, the Vols' defense has come together and is playing with confidence. And as Coach Jones says, belief and confidence are powerful.
"They are playing with a very high level of confidence," said Jones. "But again we are going to be challenged. We are going to be challenged with some very talented weapons. It is all team defense. We were able to generate pressure on the quarterback. It all goes hand in hand. A great secondary is usually linked with winning up front and winning your one-on-one matchups."
Based on the stats, the secondary is getting a lot of the credit, but two of Tennessee's leaders on the back end were quick to commend the entire unit.
"I feel like we have all bought it and we are all committed to everything we are doing," said junior corner Justin Coleman. "We play as one team and we just look forward to playing with each other."
Safety Brian Randolph - one of the defense's vocal leaders - believes it's the chemistry on and off the field that has led to change.
"Before we go out on the field we're all talking to each other," said Randolph. "The defensive line is talking telling the secondary that they're about to get us a pick. We tell them we're going to get them a coverage sack. It's little stuff like that. We're playing for each other.
"We're all very close as a defensive unit so when we see one of our guys make a play it gets us all hyped and gives us a lot of juice."
Randolph also says the big plays - including 12 interceptions - the team's new direction and experience have created a confidence across the defense.
"I think it's just confidence; we have a lot of confidence back there," said Randolph. "We made some big plays early in the year and that did a good thing for our mental game. We know we can go out there and do it.
"Coaching has really helped us too; they put us in the right spots to make the plays. The experience - we've all been through it except Cam (Sutton), but he's learned pretty fast. We all have a good knowledge back there."
Senior Marlon Walls is coming off of the best game of his career heading in the Vols match up with Alabama this weekend in Tuscaloosa.
Walls recorded a career best 2.5 sacks for 12 lost yards against South Carolina on Saturday helping the Vols to victory.
Though he has been a hard worker his whole life. It isn't his work ethic that is contributing to his success.
It is his ears.
"Whenever [Coach Stripling] starts talking, you just shut up and listen," said Walls, "and I think that has helped me out this far. His record speaks a little bit more than anything that you have to say."
The closed mouth approach has helped Walls succeed this year.
"Coach Strip's philosophy is get to the quarterback," said Walls. "We took it as a personal challenge. He always throws in that we only had 17 sacks as a unit last year. Whenever he says that we take it personal and take it as a challenge to get better as a unit in pass rushing. It is starting to show off a little bit."
In 2013, Walls has notched 17 tackles, a career best 4.5 sacks for a loss of 21 yards and 6.5 TFL and a forced fumble this season.
Walls is not taking any of the credit for his success.
"It is definitely Coach Stripling and the techniques that he is teaching as far as reducing," said Walls. "He preached that a long time ago in the spring letting us know who is always a couple of steps away from sacks. It hit home because it was true in the past few years. You just take what he is telling us to do and you use it and it is starting to pay off as far as reducing, cutting your corners and getting to the quarterback."
"All that takes away a sack is seconds in getting to the quarterback," continued Walls. "I think we are finally starting to realize what he is telling us what to do and put it into action."
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