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Jones on hot seat as Vols prepare to visit No. 1 Alabama

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

By STEVE MEGARGEE

AP Sports Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Butch Jones says he isn't allowing questions about his precarious job status to distract him as he prepares for the toughest challenge of his five-year tenure.

The Volunteers (3-3, 0-3 SEC) haven't scored a touchdown in its last 10 quarters and have dropped three of their last four games. Now they must prepare for a Saturday game at No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0).

Tennessee's failures in SEC competition have turned up the pressure on Jones, who owns a 33-24 overall record but has lost seven of his last nine league games.

"I don't worry about any of that," Jones said. "All my focus is on our players and our football program and getting them ready for the Alabama game."

Alabama has beaten Tennessee 10 straight times and is a whopping 34 + -point favorite this time.

RJ Bell, the founder and CEO of Pregame.com, says Tennessee has never been that much of an underdog since at least 1980. Bell said Tennessee's most prohibitive underdog status during that stretch up until now came in 2011, when Alabama beat the Vols 37-6 as a 30-point favorite.

Jones calls Alabama "probably the most complete football team I've seen in a number of years."

"It's going to be a great challenge, but also a great opportunity," Jones said.

Alabama's taking nothing for granted.

Alabama coach Nick Saban says the Vols "compete hard" and have "put themselves in position to win" every game they've played other than a 41-0 loss to No. 3 Georgia .

"Because they're in the situation they're in, you could make a case that they'll come in here and play great, play really, really well, try to prove something," Saban said.

Tennessee's struggles are forcing new athletic director John Currie into a difficult decision.

Jones, who owns a 33-24 record in five years, is making $4.1 million annually with a contract that runs through Feb. 28, 2021. His buyout states that if he's fired without cause, Tennessee would owe him $2.5 million times the number of full contract years remaining in his contract.

Currie took over at Tennessee in April and said before the season that he thought Jones had done a "marvelous job" in his first four years on the job.

Much has changed since.

Tennessee has averaged just 9.7 points in three SEC games, including a 15-9 loss to South Carolina last week.

"I understand as the head football coach I'm responsible for every single loss," Jones said. "I take every loss personally. We're going to continue to work. We're going to continue to grind our way out of it. That's the only way I know how to do it."

Jones already has tried shaking up the offense with a quarterback switch.

Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano was sacked seven times and threw for just 133 yards in his first career start last week but did provide cause for optimism by driving Tennessee to South Carolina's 2-yard line in the final minute. South Carolina sealed the victory when Guarantano threw three straight incompletions in the last nine seconds, but his pass to wide receiver Brandon Johnson on the game's final play appeared on target.

"I got my hands on it," Johnson said. "It was a tough throw - it was a tough pass - but I want that one back. It was (a catch) I know I could make. I hope I get another opportunity to make a play like that."

Tennessee settled for field goals on two other first-and-goal situations against South Carolina, continuing the Vols' season-long inability to deliver near the goal line. Tennessee is tied for 111th nationally in red-zone offense .

Jones said Tennessee also must improve its explosiveness in every facet of the game.

"There's no mystery," Jones said. "We're missing big plays. We're missing big plays, big splash opportunities not just on the offensive side of the ball but the defensive side of the ball and also the special teams game."

NOTES: Jones said Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley will miss "an extended period of time" due to the illness that prevented him from playing against South Carolina. Brent Cimaglia, who had been sharing the kicking duties with Medley, made all three of his field-goal attempts in the South Carolina game. ... Jones said Evan Berry was expected to practice Monday, though the safety/kick returner's status for the Alabama game remains uncertain. Berry has missed five straight games due to an unspecified injury. ... Defensive end Darrell Taylor remains suspended and will miss a second consecutive game.

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AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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Updated October 16, 2017

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