After UT defeated South Carolina in front of a Neyland Stadium crowd of 96,263 and a national audience on ESPN, left guard Cory Sullins walked into an exhilarated locker room.
While the players were excited about beating a ranked opponent in their custom-made black jerseys, Sullins knew head coach Lane Kiffin saw the Vols not playing their best.
“It was an excited locker room. But (Kiffin) did come in and tell us there were some things we needed to clean up,” Sullins said. “He let us know that we didn’t execute as well as we should’ve.”
With in-state rival Memphis coming to town on Saturday, Kiffin knows the Tigers will be ready to take advantage of UT’s mistakes.
“I would imagine this is the biggest game of the season for them,” Kiffin said. “We don’t have to look any further than the last time they came in here and almost beat Tennessee.”
Sullins and the Vols will play their 2009 Homecoming game this weekend against Memphis, an opponent that is winless against the Vols since 1996. The Tigers have never won in Knoxville.
UT’s 1996 loss to the Tigers, a 21-17 upset 13 years ago in Memphis, was fresh on the minds of the reporters attending Tennessee’s media day on Tuesday.
For Sullins, that is ancient history.
“It’s not too fresh on my mind,” he said. “It’s just an important game, and we’re not going to overlook it.”
Memphis is UT’s first unranked opponent since its Oct. 10 matchup with Georgia and the only non-conference team left on its schedule.
Tennessee has played two No. 1-ranked teams (Florida and Alabama), a No. 21 team (South Carolina) and an unranked team that entered the polls the following week (Auburn at No. 17). The Vols outscored those opponents by a combined 76-74.
By contrast, Memphis has only played one ranked opponent, then-No. 8 Ole Miss in week one. The Tigers fell to the Rebels 45-14.
The Vols can credit much of their offensive production to senior running back Montario Hardesty, who has carried the ball for 841 yards and has led the Vols in rushing in every game.
Last week the tailback put up 121 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina.
“We all say it on the sidelines — we’d block for that guy every day,” Sullins said. “We’d go to war with him every day. He’s just been a lot of fun to block for.”
The Vols’ passing game has shown improved accuracy as of late, as quarterback Jonathan Crompton has thrown two picks in the last four games compared to eight in his first four.
Crompton is second in the SEC with 16 touchdowns and is completing 57 percent of his passes.
As some players are experiencing success down the stretch of the season, Kiffin noted the Vols still have challenges to face in their final four contests, starting with finding a replacement for linebacker Savion Frazier who suffered a season-ending ACL tear against South Carolina.
“Losing Savion Frazier, we have now lost our second starting middle linebacker at a position that was already not very deep,” Kiffin said. “Our guys are going to have to do a good job.”
While Frazier was expected to make a return later this season after initial examinations, Kiffin announced Sunday Frazier will join Nick Reveiz, who tore his ACL against Ohio, on the sidelines.
With two freshmen now in line to take Frazier’s place, Kiffin knows the urgency of performing well.
“In the transition to Savion Frazier we played about six quarters of our worst defense,” Kiffin said. “We are going to need guys to step up around them and play better too if we are going to keep up this great defensive run we have been playing lately.”