KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Volunteers say they still have plenty of incentive even though their preseason hopes of contending for a Southeastern Conference title are long gone.
The Vols (3-5) can assure themselves of their first winning season since 2009 by beating each of their final four regular-season opponents. They're counting on Saturday's game with Troy (4-4) to start a season-ending surge that will allow them to earn the bowl bid that eluded them a year ago.
"Last year, that was the last of that business," Tennessee wide receiver Zach Rogers said. "That was a bad taste in our mouth and still is. That's not going to happen again here."
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley appreciates the sentiment, but he doesn't want his players thinking that far ahead. He'd rather they focus their attention on Troy, another school readjusting its preseason goals.
"We can't go 4-0 without going 1-0," Dooley said. "I told the players that I don't even want to talk about 4-0 because we have to go 1-0. We have to get a win, and we haven't done that in a while."
Dooley's future at Tennessee could depend on how the Vols finish. Dooley owns a 14-19 record in his three-year tenure and has gone 0-15 against Top 25 opponents, but the Vols have been more competitive this season. All their losses have come against ranked teams: No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 Georgia, No. 8 Florida, No. 11 South Carolina and No. 17 Mississippi State. The Alabama game was the only one that Tennessee didn't have a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
"I've known (Dooley) a long time and his parents a longer time," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "He's worked his way to a point where he's got probably one of the best football jobs in America, and he's fighting his guts out trying to hang on to it and trying to survive some of the things that happened before he got there. I think he's a great young coach. He's doing some things that, if they'll leave him alone, he'll get it done."
Troy has its own concerns.
The Trojans' surprising 34-27 loss to Florida Atlantic last week dropped their conference record to 3-3 and virtually ended their Sun Belt title hopes. Troy still believes it could earn a bowl bid with a strong November.
Although Tennessee is favored by 18 ½ points, Troy has reason for optimism. Troy lost 30-24 at home on Sept. 15 to Mississippi State, which beat Tennessee 41-31 in Starkville on Oct. 13. Troy averages 460 yards per game and faces a Tennessee defense that has allowed at least 37 points in each of its five losses.