For Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State, there’s no time like November.
The Volunteers (3-5) and Blue Raiders (2-5) have had less-than-stellar seasons but still have a chance to salvage 2011 somewhat by becoming bowl eligible during November, a month that traditionally has been kind to both teams. That quest starts when the teams meet Saturday night in Knoxville.
“Coach (Derek) Dooley says we’ve got four more games and we can change our whole season with these four,” Tennessee defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We’re just going to go out there and have one-game seasons and try to win them.”
Tennessee needs to win three out of its last four games to become bowl eligible for the third straight time. If history is any indication, it shouldn’t be too hard for the Vols, who have only lost 12 regular season games played in November or December since 1990.
The Vols won all four of their November games last year — Dooley’s first season at Tennessee — but they’re also in a little bit worse shape these days. After losing both starting quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, they’ve stumbled through a gauntlet of four straight tough Southeastern Conference losses having scored just two touchdowns total and averaged 212.5 yards per game.
“They have done a nice job defensively,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said. “Offensively, they have struggled. They have had a couple of guys injured with their quarterback and their receiver, so they have been breaking in a new quarterback the last two weeks. But they are still a very dangerous offense. It will be a great challenge for our defense.”
Dooley is opting to start quarterback Justin Worley for a second straight game in hopes of finding some rhythm in the passing game, even though the true freshman never quite got his footing in last week’s loss to South Carolina. The coach knows if Worley doesn’t improve against the Blue Raiders, the outcome may be the same.
“They certainly are more than capable of beating our tails, especially if we don’t figure out a way to score some points,” Dooley said. “We have to carry on. It’s a tough month we had, and we have to put it aside and keep working on the things that we are showing some progress on. There are some good things and we have to find some solutions on how to score some points.”
The evidence of Middle Tennessee’s potential is in its offensive production this season. Though the Blue Raiders have struggled to stop their opponents, they lead the Sun Belt Conference with an average 462.4 yards per game, 290.4 yards passing and 172 yards rushing.
Sophomore quarterback Logan Kilgore is at the heart of that offensive attack and has thrown for 14 touchdowns over his last five games and completed 19 consecutive passes two weeks ago in a win against Florida Atlantic.
“They’ve moved the ball on everybody and scored on everybody,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “They get about 90 plays a game, they run a play about every 16 seconds. They don’t wait for anybody. They went down in their first game of the year against Purdue and moved the ball up and down the field. They have good speed outside, they can beat you deep and their quarterback is a playmaker. There is plenty to worry about.”
Middle Tennessee, which was 9-2 in the past three Novembers, needs to win four of its last five games this season to become eligible for a third straight bowl game. The Blue Raiders have no reason to be intimidated by the pedigree of their opponent or the homecoming atmosphere at Neyland Stadium.
Middle Tennessee’s nonconference schedule this season has included a 3-point loss at Purdue and a visit by Georgia Tech to Murfreesboro. The Blue Raiders have also played 11 of the 12 SEC teams in their history and have logged three wins — all against Vanderbilt — in 32 games against the league.
“The caliber of opponent and the environment we’ll play in heightens the game a little bit, but I think it’s just another game,” Kilgore said. “We felt the same thing when we went to Memphis last year. I think the environment will be live but we’ll be ready to go.”