KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After continually falling apart in the second half of Southeastern Conference games last season, Tennessee entered this year intent on competing for four quarters against the top teams on its schedule.
Early indications suggest the Volunteers aren't quite there yet.
Slowly, they're making progress.
Instead of merely staying close until halftime Saturday against Florida, the Vols led late in the third quarter. But their collapse in the final 18 ½ minutes of a 37-20 loss to the Gators revealed some bad habits they must kick in order to avoid a third straight losing season.
"I'm not going to point any fingers, but I felt like some guys, we looked at the scoreboard and kind of got down on ourselves," sophomore offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said. "That's what we've been putting an emphasis on. No matter what that scoreboard says, we're trying to renew our brand as a team that plays four quarters."
Tennessee (2-1) tries to recover Saturday against Akron (1-2) before entering a grueling stretch that could define its season. After the Akron game, the Vols face four consecutive ranked conference foes: No. 5 Georgia, No. 23 Mississippi State, No. 1 Alabama and No. 7 South Carolina. The Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina games are all on the road. Tennessee's only previous game against a ranked team this season was the loss to Florida, which rose from 18th to 14th this week.
The Vols faced a similar gauntlet last year and lost four straight October games to Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina.
Perhaps the most troublesome part of the Florida game is that it followed a familiar script. Florida outscored Tennessee 24-0 and outgained the Vols 302-40 over the final 18 ½ minutes. More than one Tennessee player used the word "panic" while discussing the Vols' performance.
"When the game got close to the end, people stopped playing, I guess," junior wide receiver Justin Hunter said. "I saw it in a few people. I think there were eight minutes left and they were up two touchdowns. People just stopped."
The collapses have been all too common.
SEC opponents outscored Tennessee 139-42 after halftime last season. LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas outscored Tennessee in the second half by a combined margin of 87-0. Tennessee has lost all 14 games it hasn't led at halftime since Derek Dooley took over the program in 2010.
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