KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's offensive line hasn't quite lived up to its preseason hopes of developing into the nation's best, but it unquestionably remains the Volunteers' greatest strength.
The line features four seniors playing their final home game Saturday against Vanderbilt. The lone non-senior starter is junior tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, a candidate to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. Tennessee's five first-team linemen have combined for 167 career starts.
"I feel like we've played decently, but we've always said we haven't put together our best game as an offensive line," senior guard Zach Fulton said.
That kind of performance in the next two weeks could go a long way toward getting Tennessee (4-6, 1-5 SEC) its first bowl bid since 2010. Tennessee must beat Vanderbilt and win at Kentucky on Nov. 30 to become bowl eligible.
Saturday's game with Vanderbilt (6-4, 3-4) has special meaning for Tennessee's offensive line. Three starting linemen — Richardson, center James Stone and guard Alex Bullard — are from Nashville. Stone said he received "a little bit of ribbing" back home after the Vols lost 41-18 to Vanderbilt in Nashville last year.
"Right now, I am trying to approach this as I normally would every game," Stone said. "The whole team is taking this very serious because of the rivalry that it is. We are not trying to let any emotion affect the impact of this game."
Tennessee's offensive line began the season with high expectations, with four starters returning from a group that allowed only eight sacks last season, the third-lowest total among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. They talked before the season about forming the best line in the nation.
They failed to control the line of scrimmage in losses to Florida and Missouri, but they've provided stability.
"We've had a bunch of guys doing good here and doing good there, but not all five of us just having our greatest game together," James said. "We've still got two opportunities to do that, and I feel like we can."
Tennessee has given up 12 sacks this year and is tied for 19th nationally in fewest sacks allowed. Over the last three seasons, Tennessee has allowed 36 sacks, 12 fewer than any other Southeastern Conference team during that stretch.
The Vols have gained 185.9 yards rushing per game this year, which puts them on pace for their highest single-season average since 2004.
Vols coach Butch Jones noted that the linemen deserve much of the credit for that rushing performance because the skill-position performers haven't produced many big plays to boost that average.
"I think they've done a good job," Jones said. "I think they've played obviously the best of the best. Vanderbilt's defensive front and the different fire-zone patterns that they bring is going to challenge them, but I think they have performed well."
Jones isn't the only coach boosting Tennessee's line. Opposing coaches have raved about this group all season.
"I don't know if there's another line in the country with that type of size, athleticism and experience," Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said.
The line features plenty of pro prospects.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said in a teleconference last week that he has rated Richardson as the No. 6 offensive tackle among draft-eligible underclassmen. Kiper also said he "wouldn't have any problem giving (James) a second-round grade." Kiper rated Fulton as a potential third- or fourth-round pick and Stone as a third- to fifth-round selection.
Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com, considers Richardson a late first-round or second-round pick. He has James, Stone and Fulton as likely mid-round selections.
Tennessee's linemen aren't thinking that far ahead right now. They instead have used this week's home finale as a chance to revisit their past. They spent some free time this week watching film of the 2010 Vanderbilt game in which James, Fulton and Stone played as freshmen. Fulton said "it was crazy to see how bad we actually were."
"Back then, you think you're doing kind of good, but it looks terrible," James said. "We've come a long way."