Tennessee tries to end 15-game losing skid against SEC West
By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Facing the Southeastern Conference Western Division brings out the worst in Tennessee.
The Volunteers have lost 15 straight games to the SEC West. Tennessee's last win against a Western Division opponent was a 52-14 trouncing of Mississippi in 2010.
Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 SEC) is looking to end the skid as the Vols face SEC West teams the next two weeks. They visit No. 21 Auburn (4-2, 1-2) on Saturday before hosting No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 20.
"It's not something we talk about," linebacker Daniel Bituli said of Tennessee's problems against the West. "We just focus on the next game."
Lately, Tennessee hasn't done well against any SEC opponent, regardless of its division. The Vols have lost 11 straight SEC games and haven't beaten a conference foe since November 2016.
But the Vols were unable to win against the West even when they posted consecutive 9-4 and Top 25 finishes in 2015 and 2016.
The odds are against them again this time. Tennessee is a 15 +-point underdog Saturday at Auburn. Alabama is outscoring opponents by 40 points per game.
Offensive tackle Drew Richmond considers the upcoming schedule a chance for the Vols to prove they're better than their results have shown thus far.
"I just feel it's a good opportunity," Richmond said. Auburn is "a very good team, but I feel like we're a good team too."
Tennessee's troubles exemplify the entire Eastern Division's struggles against the West.
Each year, SEC teams play two regular-season games against teams from the opposite division. Since 2011, when Tennessee's losing streak versus SEC West teams started, East teams have gone 36-70 against the West during the regular season, 1-6 in league championship games and 0-1 in playoff games.
Tennessee has fared even worse in interdivisional games than other East teams in part because of the SEC's scheduling format. Every SEC team has one permanent opponent from the opposite division that it faces each year. Tennessee's permanent West opponent is Alabama, so the Vols are the only East team that must play the Crimson Tide every season.
During Tennessee's 15-game losing streak to the West, only once has Tennessee faced an unranked West team (a 24-20 home loss to Arkansas in 2015). Those 15 games include 12 meetings with top-10 teams and five losses to opponents ranked No. 1.
Tennessee has it typically brutal West matchups this year by facing Auburn and Alabama on back-to-back weeks. The Vols hope having a coach with an SEC West background could help out this time.
Jeremy Pruitt was a part of Alabama coach Nick Saban's staff for four national championship teams, most recently as a defensive coordinator last year . Pruitt owned a 4-1 record against Auburn during his stints as a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama.
"I've coached against (Auburn) for a long time, so offensively there's some familiarity there for us and them," Pruitt said. "From a defensive standpoint, (Auburn defensive coordinator) Kevin Steele was very instrumental in me getting hired at Alabama. I worked with him and we're very good friends, so we kind of know each other and know the philosophies there. Obviously the next week, I worked for Coach Saban for eight years. I would think it would help."
The Vols want to show they're ready to compete again. Ending several years of frustration against the West would be a major step forward.
"We're hungry," Richmond said. "We want to win bad. It's just crazy how much we go through, what we go through, what we do on a daily basis. It seems like we're falling short, but I guess that's the thing about life is your resiliency. How are you going to come back? I don't think we've got a team full of quitters. I just don't think that."
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Updated October 11, 2018