One struggling team will get well when BYU meets Tennessee in Knoxville

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi (53) celebrates a sack as Brigham Young University (BYU) hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo on Thursday Aug. 29, 2019.

Tennessee and BYU are so determined to keep the focus on themselves, they’ve done everything but deny they have a game to play Saturday.

This is apparently what happens when you are coming off two milestone losses, as fixing deficiencies becomes more urgent than the other guys on the field.

BYU is trying to overcome its ninth straight loss to Utah while the Vols hope to replace the embarrassing lowlights of its stunning defeat to Georgia State.

So what could have been a storyline of East meets West or independent meets legendary SEC program, becomes more of who can reset their season.

The Cougars are considered underdogs, but believe they have a lot of room for improvement if they can clean up mistakes that were integral in the 30-12 loss to Utah.

Turnovers, an inability to slow, much less stop the run and unsure decision making all played a part in the opening disappointment.

“We have two teams who are pretty upset about their performance in the first week,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “A lot of teams make great improvement from week one to week two, so let’s see who is ready for this one.”

Getting the offense into a better rhythm is a priority, as is taking better care of the ball. The Cougars had three turnovers against Utah and that can’t happen if they are to be successful, quarterback Zach Wilson acknowledged.

“I have to be smarter with the ball in my hands and execute better,” he said.

As for Tennessee, the Vols hope Saturday’s game can get them going in the right direction following the shocking opening loss to Georgia State. A program that has traditionally been known for national titles, annual SEC contention and bushels of NFL stars is unaccustomed to such debacles, although coach Jeremy Pruitt tried his best this week to make the ugly start go away.

“If you coach long enough, every loss is the same,” he said. “Not any of them is weighted more than the other one so you want to be at your best every week.”

That is good coach speak from a guy who is well aware Tennessee’s fanbase has little patience for struggling seasons, much less embarrassing ones.

Yet it’s hard to deny the program is in a horrible spot right now. According to media reports, the Tennessee players had a players-only meeting following the loss and two players, defensive back Terrell Bailey and receiver Jordan Murphy, left the team following the loss.

A win over BYU wouldn’t erase the embarrassment of losing to Georgia State, but it might at least quiet the critics for a bit.

The danger for BYU might be going into the game thinking the Vols will be an easy road win, but the players don’t sound like they are falling into that trap.

BYU offensive lineman James Empey said not much stock can be put into the first week’s outcome since every week is different.

“You can expect to get each opponent’s best shot every week,” he said. “They got Georgia State’s best shot last week and they’re going to give us their best shot, so we have to give them our best shot this week. We have to be ready to go to work.”

Wilson said Tennessee has a good defense with a lot of good athletes.

“It will be a critical week for us to make sure that we are dialed in and have everyone know their assignments and making the plays we need to make,” he said.


At Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.

Kickoff: 5 p.m., Saturday


Radio: KSL-AM 1160

Series history: First meeting

About the Cougars: Coming off a 30-12 season-opening loss to rival Utah. …The Cougars are 6-7 against current members of the SEC with the last visit to an SEC foe at Mississippi State in 2017, which was a 35-10 loss for the Cougars. …The Cougars have had just four 0-2 starts, the last being in 1995. …BYU offensive line coach Eric Mateos worked for Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney as a graduate assistant in 2013 and 2014. …The Cougars return home to host USC on Sept. 14.

About the Vols: Coming off what some are calling the worst loss in program history, losing to Georgia State 38-30. …The Panthers received $950,000 to play the Vols. …Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 311 yards in the loss, but had two fourth-quarter turnovers and was sacked four times for a loss of 36 yards. …Coached by Jeremy Pruitt, who went 5-8 in his first year with the Vols. …As a program, Tennessee ranks No. 10 in total wins with 838 victories and has six national titles.