KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee players and coaches insist they have a more mature team with a better understanding of how to respond to setbacks this year.
Now the Volunteers need to prove it.
Tennessee sure didn't handle adversity well Saturday in a 37-20 loss to Florida, as the Volunteers allowed the last 24 points of the game. The result helped Florida move from 18th to 14th in the Top 25, while Tennessee tumbled out of the rankings.
"When times like this hit, we just have to respond to it," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "Our first test, we didn't do well. Next week is going to be our big test for us, to respond to it. It's adversity. We're looking forward to it."
Tennessee (2-1) had built up this game as a chance to reclaim its status as a Southeastern Conference contender after two straight losing seasons. The Vols now must prepare for Akron (1-2) and try to show they're not following the same formula that led to disappointment last year.
The Vols also entered last season's Florida game unbeaten, but they fell 33-23 to the Gators and finished 5-7. While this year's team has traveled a similar path thus far, Tennessee believes it will avoid a repeat performance.
"We can still have a great season," senior tight end Mychal Rivera said.
Tennessee's chances of having a great season - or even a good one - depend on whether it can avoid repeating the mistakes that led to its collapse against the Gators.
Florida erased a 20-13 second-half deficit by scoring two touchdowns in the final 3 ½ minutes of the third quarter and outgaining Tennessee 152-5 in the final period. The Vols allowed 336 rushing yards, the most they had yielded to Florida since giving up 370 in a 27-17 loss to the Gators in 1977. They had entered the night allowing just 2.9 yards per carry.
Tennessee's defense had given up only three plays of over 30 yards through its first two games of the season. Florida exceeded that total in the last 18 ½ minutes Saturday with Trey Burton's 80-yard touchdown run, Mike Gillislee's 45-yard gain and 33-yard burst plus Frankie Hammond's 75-yard touchdown catch.
"It was very deflating, when you do so good and then you lose a block and they run right past you," junior nose guard Daniel McCullers said. "We have to work on that."
Tennessee's offense wasn't any better.
Vols quarterback Tyler Bray had gone 19-of-29 for 225 yards with two touchdowns and an interception before Burton's 80-yard run tied the game with 3:15 left in the third quarter. Bray went 3-of-15 for 32 yards and an interception the rest of the way.
After rushing for 66 yards on 14 carries in the first half, Rajion Neal gained 21 yards on nine attempts in the final two quarters.
"They did a real good job late in the third, early in the fourth, and we never really could recover," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "We've got to learn from it. It was a disappointing loss, and we'll get better from it and we're going to move on."
They must start moving forward.
As much as the Vols talk about how they've grown and how they're ready to take the next step, they realize it's time to back up those words by beating a quality opponent.
"We have to win ballgames," Bray said. "These fans don't care about what we do on the practice field or anything like that. They just care if we win ballgames."
The Vols' schedule affords them plenty of opportunities to make a statement.
Tennessee won't have much to prove against Akron, a Mid-American Conference program that has gone 3-24 with only one victory over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since the start of the 2010 season. But the Vols follow that up with four straight ranked SEC foes: No. 5 Georgia, No. 23 Mississippi State, No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 South Carolina. In that four-game stretch, only Alabama comes to Knoxville.
"We've got a recovery game, and we're going to take it out on them and look forward to the next SEC opponent," junior outside linebacker Jacques Smith said. "I know they'll be looking for us and we're going to take it to them. We definitely do have something to prove this year, and we're definitely going to prove it."