Tennessee seniors have much at stake entering home finale
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) After beginning their college careers on losing teams, Tennessee's seniors would love nothing more than to finish up by playing for a Southeastern Conference championship.
Those seniors still hope to reach that goal as they prepare for their final college home game Saturday against Missouri (3-7, 1-5 SEC).
''That would mean everything,'' defensive end Corey Vereen said.
In order to get to Atlanta for a shot at the title, Tennessee (7-3, 3-3) must win its final two games and have No. 16 LSU defeat No. 21 Florida on Saturday. Tennessee plays at Vanderbilt next week in its regular-season finale.
Tennessee isn't in control of its destiny, but the fact the Vols are even in contention for a division title in mid-November shows how far this program has come since these seniors enrolled.
''They've made a lasting impact on Tennessee football,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''We always talk about is Tennessee football better because you were a part of it. How have you impacted the football program? All these individuals have impacted the football program in a very, very positive manner.''
This senior class includes the first collection of players Jones recruited to Tennessee as well as four players who preceded the coach's arrival in Knoxville. Linebacker Kenny Bynum, tight end Jason Croom, defensive end LaTroy Lewis and defensive lineman Charles Folger are the lone fifth-year seniors who were part of Derek Dooley's last Tennessee team.
Dooley was fired amid a 5-7 season in 2012. Jones and the other freshmen came aboard in 2013 when Tennessee again finished 5-7 for its fourth straight losing season.
Tennessee went 7-6 in 2014 and 9-4 last season while winning bowl games each year. This season, the Vols were ranked as high as ninth before a three-game skid in October caused them to tumble out of the Top 25.
The headline performers in this class are quarterback Joshua Dobbs, cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Dobbs has made 32 career starts while majoring in aerospace engineering. His accomplishments on and off the field have made him the face of Tennessee's program.
''A lot of people said you can't go to college, can't play SEC football and major in engineering, (that) there's just not enough time in the day,'' Dobbs said. ''You can't do this and you can't do that. ... My message always has been, `Why can't I do that?' ''
Sutton, a starter since the opening game of his freshman season, is Tennessee's career leader in passes defended and returned to action last week after missing six games with a fractured ankle. Reeves-Maybin led the Vols in tackles in 2015 and tied for the team lead in 2014 before season-ending shoulder surgery limited him to just four games this year.
Tennessee's fifth-year seniors encountered even more adversity as they dealt with consecutive losing seasons and a coaching change in their first two years on campus.
They marvel at how much has happened since their arrival.
''We remember when we just moved into Gibbs (Hall), me and Jason were roommates together,'' Lewis said. ''We look over across the street and Gibbs is gone (it was demolished in 2014). It's a whole new building up. How things have changed over time, it's really interesting to look back on.''
Those four fifth-year seniors have only made a combined seven starts this season, but they've delivered quite an impact off the field. Lewis has started a local nonprofit organization aimed at mentoring and educating young people in the Knoxville area, while Folger volunteers at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville.
Tennessee's seniors acknowledge Saturday's game will carry an emotional weight. Folger quipped that ''I'm going to cry like a baby'' when he runs onto Neyland Stadium's field for the last time and is greeted by his family.
But they don't want to get too nostalgic just yet. There's too much at stake.
''We still have a lot of dreams and goals on the table,'' Dobbs said. ''We can't get caught up in too much of the emotion and be focused on this being our last (home) game. We've still got to prepare and get ready to play a ballgame Saturday.''
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