AP Top 25 College Football
Photo by Michael Patrick, copyright © 2012 // Buy this photo
Tennessee spent seven days in the Top 25 and one Saturday in the national spotlight.
The sun came up on Sunday, just as coach Derek Dooley promised it would after the Vols' dispiriting 37-20 loss to the Florida Gators on Saturday. But the ESPN College GameDay studio had packed up and left Circle Park and the Vols' first Top 25 ranking in four years had vanished.
The road back could be difficult.
Tennessee (2-1) plays host to Akron (1-2) Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: CSS, 7:30 p.m.) in a game that the Vols will be expected to win by several touchdowns.
But after that, Tennessee will begin a stretch of four games in five weeks that could define its season. The Vols play at No. 5 Georgia on Sept. 29, at No. 23 Mississippi State on Oct. 13 and at No. 7 South Carolina on Oct. 27. They host No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 20.
Tennessee is likely to be the underdog in at least three and probably all four of those games. The unforgiving SEC schedule leaves little time for moping about what could have been on Saturday.
"We're going to have to learn from it," Dooley said. "We've got to make sure we don't make those kinds of mistakes again, because we're going to be in a lot of fourth quarter games."
If there's good news, it's that Tennessee played well enough to win for nearly three quarters. But the utter collapse on both sides of the ball in the final 20 minutes was so confounding that no one in Saturday's post-game interview session could really put their finger on just how things went so badly.
On defense, the Vols were victimized by big plays. A 80-yard run by Trey Burton tied the game. A 45-yard run by Mike Gillislee set up the go-ahead touchdown. And a 75-yard touchdown pass by Jeff Driskel to Frankie Hammond made it 34-20 and essentially put the game away.
"It's so deflating," said nose guard Daniel McCullers. "You do so good and then you lose contain or lose a block and then they run right past you. We've got to work on that."
The Vols' offense bears as much or perhaps more of the blame. Through 37 minutes, Tennessee had 20 points and 303 yards. After that, the Vols were scoreless, managing 37 yards in 22 plays.
"We have to clean it up. There were too many three-and-outs on offense," said tight end Mychal Rivera. "It's obviously very tough, but we've got to move onto the next game because we can still have a great season this season."
Despite the team's listlessness in the final 20 minutes, Dooley brushed aside any suggestion that players had thrown in the towel.
"I don't want to get into that giving-up deal," he said.
Florida scored a touchdown that would have made the score 43-20 late in the game on a run by Driskel, but it was overturned after review.
"We didn't look good on that play, but (all the defensive players) thought he stepped out of bounds," Dooley said.
Officials decided that Driskel had in fact stepped out of bounds before reaching the end zone.
"I was going nuts," Dooley said. "They should have still kept going on that play."
Otherwise, the culprit was not effort, but execution. And the two statistics that Dooley cites after every game — turnovers and big plays — were both in the Gators' favor.
"(The big plays) are something we have to work on," McCullers said. "I know we'll get better because we have a great team."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.