KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has received a reality check the last couple of months on how much work it needs to do before the Volunteers return to relevance in the Southeastern Conference.
The Vols (2-3, 0-2 SEC) have been focusing on fundamentals during their off week as first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt continues trying to rebuild a program that hasn’t won an SEC game since November 2016 .
“We just need to take care of the little things first before we can take care of the big things,” outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said.
Not much was expected of Tennessee.
After going 4-8 and setting a school record for losses last year , Tennessee was picked before the season to finish sixth out of seven teams in the SEC East.
But there was some optimism around campus that Tennessee could compete with West Virginia or topple Florida, which also had won just four games last year. Tennessee lost to each of those teams by a 26-point margin.
Tennessee suffered another 26-point loss last week when it fell 38-12 at No. 2 Georgia.
“They’re figuring out if they do things the right way, they give themselves a chance to have success (and) it doesn’t matter who the opponent is,” Pruitt said. “If we don’t, we don’t give ourselves a chance.”
The road won’t get any easier for Tennessee, which visits No. 8 Auburn and host No. 1 Alabama in its next two games.
Yet the Vols remain optimistic they can finish the season better than they started it. The Vols say the results will get better once they start correcting what they refer to as the “little things” that separate good teams from bad ones.
“We believe that we can be a good team if we put it all together, but it’s easier to say than actually do,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said. “We just have to keep working and pushing, and I think we’ll be fine.”
How soon they’ll be fine remains up in the air.
The Vols have lost 11 straight games to SEC foes, a skid that began with a loss to Vanderbilt in their 2016 regular-season finale . They also have lost 11 straight to Power Five teams since beating Georgia Tech in overtime in their 2017 season opener .
Tennessee’s relative lack of talent compared to other SEC rosters gives the Vols little margin for error against conference foes. When they make any sort of mental mistake, they end up paying dearly.
“Football’s more of a mental game than people give it credit for,” center Ryan Johnson said. “It’s a big chess game. It really is. It’s almost like doing calculus. If you mess up the first step, it doesn’t matter because you’re not going to get the last step right - your problem is not going to be right. If you mess up the simple algebra in the beginning, it doesn’t matter how well you know how to integrate - you’re going to screw up.
“I think that’s what we’ve got to focus on, going back to the simple details, the simple things.”
Tennessee has provided at least some reasons for encouragement.
Ty Chandler has demonstrated big-play ability by rushing for 158 yards in a 24-0 victory over UTEP and turning a backfield reception into a 35-yard touchdown against Georgia. Freshman defensive backs Trevon Flowers, Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson have earned enough playing time to offer hope for the future. Darrell Taylor’s three-sack performance against Georgia suggests he could emerge as a formidable pass-rushing threat the rest of the season.
Tennessee showed progress against Georgia by scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to cut a 24-0 deficit to 24-12. The Bulldogs answered with two straight touchdowns of their own, but an emotional Pruitt said at his postgame news conference that “our guys kept fighting, which means we’re headed in the right direction and that excites me.”
“He sees something in us that I feel like we all see,” wide receiver Brandon Johnson said. “It may take a little time for you guys to see it, but he sees something in us. With that kind of emotion coming from a coach, we can’t help but just want to play for him.”