Tennessee Stat Book
Nearly converting half of its third downs Saturday against LSU wasn't enough to move Tennessee out from 117th in the nation in conversion percentage.
But it was a boost of confidence, coach Derek Dooley said, a push in the right direction caused by more productive first and second downs.
UT was 7-of-15 on third downs against LSU. Take away a third-and-27 in the second quarter, and the Vols averaged third-and-5 on the other 14 possession downs. Against UAB, when the Vols were just 2-for-15, their average teetered toward third-and-10.
On third-and-6 or longer this season, UT is 2-for-46.
"It's unbelievable," quarterback Matt Simms said. "We couldn't do anything on third down against UAB but for some reason against the best defense in our conference we came up big and made plays."
Though the distances were mostly shorter, the No. 1 reason behind the Vols' success on third downs Saturday was nearly unanimous among Dooley and UT's players.
The return of wide receiver Gerald Jones provided a spark to the offense and a trusted target for Simms in the biggest times of need. Three of Jones' five catches came on third downs and all were long enough to move the chains.
Simms said Jones brought "a swagger" to the huddle and "ignited" UT's offense.
"He makes a difference throwing the ball because of his experience, his dependability, he's strong, he's physical, he's got good hands," Dooley said. "We obviously went right to him, we'd be pretty stupid if we didn't."
Jones said the key to his success on third downs centers on his move to the slot, where "I have a lot of field to work with."
"I've got a lot of options, either to cut inside or go outside, it's my choice," Jones said. "I'm kind of like a Wes Welker-type guy. I can work in space."
Contingency Plan: One day after he said he didn't have much of a plan in case left tackle Dallas Thomas (ankle) was unavailable Saturday against Georgia, Dooley tinkered with his offensive linemen during Tuesday's practice.
Dooley said he moved right tackle Ja'Wuan James to Thomas' spot for portions of practice and also used redshirt freshman Daniel Hood, a Knoxville Catholic product. When James played at left tackle, starting right guard Jarrod Shaw slid over to right tackle and freshman Zach Fulton took over for Shaw.
"The problem is you can't put anyone somewhere and work them," Dooley said. "A guy gets dinged up and it messes up all the parts."
Dooley said Thomas was "still limping around" and is "day to day."
Back In Action: Cornerback Naz Oliver was back on the practice field for the first time since spring football.
OIiver, who didn't wear pads or face contact, underwent surgery to reconstruct a torn anterior cruciate ligament in May, one month after the redshirt freshman injured his knee in the Orange and White game.
Dooley said the best-case scenario would have Oliver ready for Tennessee's game at South Carolina at the end of the month.
On Ice: Daniel Lincoln, who was unavailable Saturday at LSU because of a quadriceps injury, did not kick at practice, Dooley said.
"He's still hurt," Dooley said. "There's a good chance he won't kick again this game. I don't know, we will see later in the week."
Tough Road Behind, Ahead: Tennessee's schedule to date is considered the fourth toughest in the nation, according to the latest Sagarin ratings.
The Vols, who are ranked the 47th best team in the nation in the rankings, have played three teams (Oregon, Florida and LSU) that were ranked in the top 10 of either the Associated Press or ESPN/USA Today coaches polls. Games against No. 1 Alabama (Oct. 23) and at No. 19 South Carolina (Oct. 30) have yet to be factored.
Oregon State, which lost games at No. 4 Boise State and against No. 5 TCU on a neutral site, has the toughest schedule in the country, according to the rankings.
The Vols are second in the SEC behind Vanderbilt, which has had the second-toughest draw in the nation.
The Sagarin ratings were developed by Jeff Sagarin of USA Today and are one of the polls used in computing a team's BCS ranking.
Andrew Gribble can be reached at 865-342-6327.