KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Butch Jones will ''thoroughly, thoroughly examine'' every aspect of his program as the Volunteers prepare for the Music City Bowl and attempt to reverse a late-season slide.
After getting off to a 5-0 start and being ranked as high as ninth, Tennessee (8-4) dropped four of its final seven regular-season games, including surprising losses at South Carolina and Vanderbilt . The Vols face No. 24 Nebraska (9-3) in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30 at Nashville, Tennessee.
''Obviously we did not finish (the regular season) the way we wanted to finish,'' Jones said. ''That's unacceptable in our program. I take responsibility for that as the leader of this program. We have to do a better job of finishing.''
Tennessee's slump makes this a different type of bowl season for the Vols.
Each of the last two years, Tennessee posted one-sided bowl victories that capped late-season surges. Tennessee's 45-6 Outback Bowl blowout of Northwestern last year highlighted a six-game winning streak to close the season. Two years ago, the Vols won four of their last five games, including a 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl triumph over Iowa .
Tennessee's players say they remain as motivated as ever for the bowl game. They're eager to stay in their home state and correct the mistakes they've made in their last few games.
''We'll be excited to actually play another game and redeem ourselves from our last performance,'' quarterback Joshua Dobbs said.
This isn't the way Tennessee anticipated ending its season. The Vols were picked to win the SEC Eastern Division title but finished behind Florida, a team they had beaten early in the season. They still had a legitimate shot at earning a Sugar Bowl bid until their loss to Vanderbilt.
The recent struggles have Tennessee eager to address the long-term health of its program while also preparing for the bowl game.
''I will thoroughly, thoroughly examine everything in our football program in moving forward,'' Jones said. ''Every amount of time where I'm not recruiting or not in a home or not in a high school, I'm examining that and will continue to do that. That's a process. You have to take the emotion out. You have to look at where you're at, you have to look at how far you've come and then you have to look at your deficiencies as a football team and a football program.''
Jones said one of Tennessee's major offseason priorities is adding depth. A multitude of injuries and a porous defense prevented Tennessee from maintaining the form it showed early in the season.
''We have to continue to recruit that depth,'' Jones said. ''Our starting 22 could play with anybody in the country. I think we saw that starting out 5-0.''
Dobbs, defensive end Derek Barnett, offensive tackle Brett Kendrick, wide receiver Josh Malone and defensive tackle Kendal Vickers are the only Vols who started all 12 regular-season games. Injuries have caused Tennessee to start seven different offensive line combinations and 10 different secondary combinations. The defense lost tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Quart'e Sapp plus safety Evan Berry to season-ending injuries.
The bad news on the injury front continued Monday when Jones announced offensive tackle Chance Hall has undergone surgery and will miss the Music City Bowl. Hall missed Tennessee's last three regular-season games with a knee injury.
All those injuries may help explain why defensive end LaTroy Lewis says this year is ''definitely not a disappointment,'' even though the Vols didn't live up to their preseason billing.
''I probably can sit here and talk to numerous friends playing around the country, and they would trade (for) our eight wins in a heartbeat,'' Lewis said.
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