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Vols need some freshmen to step up at skill positions

Tennessee has improved from 5-7 in coach Butch Jones’ first season to 9-4 the past two seasons. But another way to evaluate UT’s progress under Jones is to check the losing streaks he has ended.

When he became head coach after the 2012 season, the Vols had so many active losing streaks, you couldn’t keep up with them all. Derek Dooley, Jones’ predecessor, at least ended one of those streaks.

Dooley’s last Tennessee team beat N.C. State 35-21 in the 2012 season opener to end the program’s six-game losing streak in Atlanta. Three of those losses came in bowl games and three more in SEC championship games.

But thanks to Dooley, the Vols won’t have to carry that baggage to Atlanta for their season opener against Georgia Tech.

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Jones didn’t need a full season to end a losing streak. In his seventh game, the Vols knocked off No. 11-ranked South Carolina, which had won three consecutive games against the Vols.

A year later, the Vols ended a two-game losing streak to Vanderbilt with a 24-17 victory in Nashville.

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In January 2015, Jones ended Tennessee’s two-game bowl losing streak with a 45-28 victory over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Two more Tennessee losing streaks came to an end in 2015. The Vols ended a five-game losing streak to Georgia and a three-game losing streak to Missouri.

In 2016, Jones ended one of UT’s most damaging losing streaks of all-time. The Vols’ second-half comeback against Florida produced a 38-28 victory and ended an 11-game losing streak to their SEC rival.

A week later, Tennessee ended a four-game losing streak in Athens, Ga., by beating Georgia 34-31 on a Hail Mary.

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While the Vols are gaining momentum in the streak-breaking department, there’s still work to be done. Here are the losing streaks UT will seek to end in 2017:

Alabama: The Vols have lost 10 consecutive games to the Tide. And most of those losses haven’t been close.

Another streak will be on the line when the teams meet in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Oct. 21. The Vols have lost six consecutive games at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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SEC West: Thanks, in part, to playing Alabama every season, Tennessee has 12 consecutive losses against SEC West teams. UT last beat a West team in November  2010 when it routed Ole Miss 52-14.

The average margin of defeat against SEC West opponents is as astounding as the streak itself. The Vols have lost by an average of 22.5 points.

The Swamp: A year after ending one losing streak against the Gators, Tennessee will confront another one. The Vols have lost six consecutive games in The Swamp.

Their last victory came in 2003 when they beat Ron Zook’s Gators.

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Will Muschamp: This streak is also Florida-related. Although Muschamp didn’t win enough games to keep his coaching job with Florida, he went 4-0 against Tennessee.

He stretched his winning streak vs. UT to five games last season when his first South Carolina team knocked off the Vols 24-21.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or john.adams@knoxnews.com. Follow him at: Twitter.com/johnadamskns.