Dave Hooker audio
ATHENS, Ga. - Tennessee dropped to new depths under coach Phillip Fulmer, and it showed slight improvement on the same afternoon. What does that tell you about this season?
The Vols fell to 2-4 for the first time in Fulmer's 16 seasons as head coach. They eliminated themselves from the SEC East race in a 26-14 loss at Sanford Stadium on Saturday afternoon (Don't bother raising the mathematical possibilities; you can't lose to Georgia and Florida and win the East).
But on a day of losses, UT gained something, too. It didn't turn the ball over offensively, and it hung in a game that it had no business being in.
By this team's standards, that's significant progress.
Georgia held the Vols to 1 yard rushing. It had 19 more first downs and more than doubled UT's yardage.
Yet, just when you thought a blowout was brewing, the Vols made a play that prolonged the suspense of a game that Georgia led 13-0 and 20-7.
Georgia had a hand in UT's survival. Quarterback Matthew Stafford tainted a career game of 310 yards passing by throwing two interceptions when Georgia was inside the UT 15.
Wide receiver A.J. Green cost the Bulldogs a touchdown with a dropped pass in the end zone. And the Bulldogs repeatedly had to settle for field goals, which freshman Blair Walsh executed perfectly, hitting from 34, 20, 41 and 28 yards.
Georgia mistakes withstanding, UT's defense inside the 20 was commendable, especially since it was beaten so decisively for much of the game.
Its game-long struggle against the Bulldogs proved that its No. 5 national ranking in total defense obviously had as much to do with the opposition as UT's effectiveness.
Confronted with an opponent that could run and pass as effectively as Georgia, the Vols were on their heels from the outset. Moreover, they looked as clueless in Georgia's 97-yard touchdown drive to end the first half as they did in UCLA's two second-half touchdown drives.
In preseason, I regarded UT's secondary as solid even without star strong safety Eric Berry. I was wrong.
Berry had another All-SEC afternoon, making seven tackles and returning an interception 54 yards to set a scoring drive in motion. But Georgia receivers got the best of UT's secondary time after time.
They often weren't just open. They were wide open.
You could blame the front end of UT's pass defense as well. Forget the zero sacks. The Vols weren't credited with so much as a "quarterback hurry."
On a day when the defense lost ground, UT's usually dormant offense at least deserved polite applause. There were no fumbles and no interceptions, a significant step for a group that seemed bent on self-destruction during the first month of the season.
Clearly, UT has a better chance of not losing a game when it has Nick Stephens at quarterback and somebody other than Arian Foster at tailback. Foster's fumbles simply are too costly for an offense with such a slim margin for error.
In his second start, Stephens handled himself well against a formidable defense in a hostile environment. Although he completed only 13 of 30 passes, he threw for 208 yards and two touchdowns in his first start on the road and first start in the SEC.
Stephens plays with more poise and has greater field awareness than his predecessor, Jonathan Crompton. And if you're looking for something less subtle, he's also a more accurate passer.
Unfortunately for the Vols, Stephens' virtues went undetected by UT's brain trust until the season already had swerved terribly off course.
The Vols can't win the East. They can alter the course of their season.
But if they hope to turn a losing season into a winning one, they can't dwell on lost goals. They have to set new ones.
Mississippi State next Saturday now qualifies as a big game. And the Liberty Bowl qualifies as a rewarding postseason experience.
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.