Tennessee's players and coaches are running out of ways to explain why the running game isn't clicking.
Meanwhile, the Vols are running out of places to drop before they hit rock bottom among college football's 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
After finishing Saturday's 20-12 loss to Georgia with minus-20 rushing yards on 23 attempts, UT (3-2, 0-2 SEC) solidified its hold as the SEC's worst rushing team and dropped to 114th nationally with its average of 84.8 yards per game.
"I thought we would be better than what we're doing against Florida and Georgia," coach Derek Dooley said. "I thought we would be about like what we were against Buffalo and Cincinnati. We haven't run the ball well against two good defenses yet and that's disappointing."
The numbers only get worse when the scope is narrowed to conference games.
The Vols, who averaged 126.5 rushing yards against Cincinnati and Buffalo, have yet to finish with positive yardage in either of their SEC games and carry an average of minus-14.5 yards per game heading into Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.) against No. 1 LSU (6-0, 3-0), which boasts the nation's fourth-best rush defense.
A 74-yard gap separates UT from 11th-place Ole Miss among SEC-only rushing statistics. The top nine are all averaging more than 100 per game.
"It's tough," left tackle Dallas Thomas said. "But we can't let the negative plays affect us. We have to keep pushing forward no matter how bad they get."
The Vols' running game will have to push past more than negative plays in the upcoming games against three teams ranked in the Associated Press top 15.
Not only is quarterback Tyler Bray out for the next six weeks with a broken thumb, but senior running back Tauren Poole could also be out for an extended period of time with a hamstring injury. Poole, who leads the Vols with 342 rushing yards this season, carried the ball seven times for 7 yards in the first quarter Saturday before the injury.
Second-string running back Marlin Lane, who has thrived as a pass-catcher and already has four touchdowns, would conceivably fill Poole's void, but the freshman has averaged just 2.6 yards per carry. He likely won't be alone in the backfield, either.
"We'll consider giving anybody some reps in the backfield if they can generate some yards," Dooley said.
Sophomore Rajion Neal, who missed a significant portion of the preseason with multiple injuries, had the Vols' longest run Saturday on the game's opening drive, but the 11-yard carry ended with the ball on the ground. Later in the drive, Neal fumbled again, and even though he was able to recover both, he never saw the field again.
On the offensive line, the Vols have started the same five players — Thomas, Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James — at the same five positions for all five games. Because of the unit's youth, Dooley has previously said that it was too early to make wholesale changes on the unit. When asked about it Saturday, Dooley said it was "too early to have those kind of discussions."
"I've got to go look at it," he said.
Water And Bamboo: Dooley wasn't in the best of moods after UT's loss to Georgia, but he was still able to come up with one of his trademark analogies to describe the team's situation.
Considering that both Georgia and Florida are uncharacteristically unranked, and the SEC East remains wide open, Dooley was asked if he thinks the Vols will ever be able to catch the two perennial divisional leaders once they rebound. The answer quickly turned into an impromptu "state of the program" type address.
"We're water and bamboo," Dooley said. "Bamboo sits there and you water it, and you water it, and you water it. It sits there and it doesn't grow and it doesn't grow and you water it and you keep watering it and nothing's happening. If you don't understand bamboo, you say it's never going to grow. And then you come out and it goes ZHOOM! That's what's going to happen. I don't know when that is.
"I can't sit there and worry about 'they're down, if we don't get them now, we'll never get them.' We'll get them, our time will come, it's not right now. We make too many mistakes, we're not good enough in some places and we just got to learn from it and try to improve."
No. 1 In Town: With LSU retaining its spot atop the AP's Top 25, the Vols will host a No. 1 team at Neyland Stadium on Saturday for the first time since their 26-3 loss to Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 9, 2002.
The Vols' last win over a No. 1 team came on Sept. 28, 1985, when they downed Auburn, 38-20.