- By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — LSU knows what Tennessee is going through this week.
Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 SEC) hosts LSU on Saturday in the Volunteers’ first game under interim head coach Brady Hoke after the firing of Butch Jones . LSU (7-3, 4-2) played the majority of the 2016 season with an interim coach as well after Les Miles was dismissed .
The 21st-ranked Tigers (No. 20 College Football Playoff) know quite well how a coaching change can motivate a team. LSU was 2-2 when Miles was fired but rallied under Ed Orgeron to finish 8-4 .
“A coaching change means a fresh start for everybody,” LSU quarterback Danny Etling said. “It’s like a whole new season. I am sure they are thinking, ‘If we can win the next two games, we can go to a bowl.’ It helps the players. Now (the firing) is done. You have a new direction.”
Orgeron fared so well last year that LSU removed the interim tag from his title . This stint as interim coach represents an opportunity for Hoke to show he also is capable of being a head coach again after going 78-70 in 12 seasons at Ball State, San Diego State and Michigan.
“That really is irrelevant to me,” Hoke said. “I think the relevancy is those 22 seniors, making sure we give them the opportunity to go out and play their best football.”
LSU enters this game as a 15 ½-point favorite and has a pair of running backs in Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams that could punish a Tennessee defense that ranks 126th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams against the run .
Tennessee’s other issue is trying to stay focused amid all the tumult surrounding the coaching change.
“We had a team meeting and guys were like, ‘If you don’t want to be here, don’t be here,’ ” Tennessee defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. “Everybody stayed, so everybody wants to put in the work. Everybody wants to get these last two wins.”
That approach seems awfully familiar to LSU. The Tigers’ memories of last year remain fresh.
“You play like there is nothing to lose,” LSU safety Donte Jackson said. “They’ll be playing for the new coach. You feel like there are a lot of doubters and that the fans are against you. You want to give it your all.”
Here are some other things to watch when Tennessee hosts LSU.
THE CHASE FOR EIGHT: LSU has the longest active streak of seasons with at least eight wins of any Power Five program. A victory over Tennessee would give LSU eight wins for an 18th consecutive year.
HOKE’S TWEAKS: The coaching change has led to some adjustments in Tennessee’s practice approach and game management. One notable difference this week is that offensive coordinator Larry Scott will be working from the sideline rather than the coaches’ box on Saturday. Hoke also has said he will wear a headset Saturday, a change from his usual routine at Michigan.
DUBIOUS DISTINCTION AHEAD?: Tennessee needs to beat either LSU on Saturday or Vanderbilt next week to avoid finishing a season winless in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time since the league formed in 1933. Tennessee also must win one of these two games to avoid its first eight-loss season in school history.
LSU’S PASS RUSH: LSU has 31 sacks this season to rank second in the SEC . LSU’s 3.1 sacks per game put them in a tie for 11th among all FBS teams . That could be a major factor against Tennessee, which has allowed 25 sacks over its last five games.
TENNESSEE’S QB ISSUES: Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano missed a 50-17 loss to Missouri last week with an ankle injury that caused freshman Will McBride to make his first career start. Hoke hasn’t said which quarterback will start Saturday but noted that Guarantano is “healthier than he was.”
AP freelance writer Bryan Lazare in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.
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