AP Top 25 College Football
When Florida wide receiver Frankie Hammond sped through the Tennessee secondary Saturday night, it's a wonder the entire Neyland Stadium crowd didn't move just as swiftly for the exits.
Some stuck around for the last 9 minutes. Maybe they were too tired to leave.
UT fans probably felt as exhausted as their team looked in the fourth quarter of Florida's come-from-behind, 37-20 victory.
Hammond's 75-yard touchdown wasn't a game winner. It was a game clincher.
It also was the deflating dart in a Big Orange balloon that had been pumped full of optimism all week.
There was enough energy in Neyland Stadium to lift the Vols off Shields-Watkins Field as they ran through the "T."
Tennessee fans haven't invested that much emotion in a Neyland Stadium venture in years. And they won't again this season.
"What about Alabama?" you might ask if you were oblivious to what transpired against the Gators.
Alabama, like Florida, is a longtime UT rival and nemesis. Alabama, like Florida, will be nationally ranked.
But it's not just ranked. It's No. 1 and looking every bit as dominant through three games as it was in winning the 2011 national championship.
Never mind that the Gators entered the game with a seven-game winning streak in the series.
They offered hope.
Hope left town before the Gators did. And it won't be back in Neyland Stadium on Oct. 20 when the Tide comes to Knoxville with another winning streak in tow.
Even if the Vols beat Georgia and Mississippi State on the road, their fans won't risk the emotional investment they made against Florida. Who could blame them?
So much went into Saturday's game: money, time, emotion, and the anticipation that a series long dominated by the Gators was about to take a Tennessee turn.
Some fans spent Friday night on the premises, intent on securing a prominent position for ESPN GameDay the following morning. Tailgaters were there from morning to night.
All they got in return was a devastating fourth quarter and an epic post-game traffic jam. The traffic was still so bad two and a half hours after the game, I felt as though I had just covered a Talladega 500.
Sitting there in a car that wasn't moving, you probably wondered where this program is headed.
The Vols have more talent than they have had the last two years. But, based on what happened against Florida, they still lack the wherewithal to maintain their composure and make crucial plays in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Hammond's touchdown occurred with 9:55 to play. UT responded as though there were 55 seconds left.
If it responds as desperately to adversity in its next four SEC games, it can expect the same results. And by the end of October, fans will be talking more about a coaching search than a bowl destination.
Win a couple of those games, and the optimism fostered from an season-opening victory over North Carolina State will return. But don't expect fans to make a leap of faith in anticipation.
They will have to see it first.