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.
The Vols could use their lack of experience and depth as an explanation last season. One year later, that excuse doesn't really work.
"As things get going bad, we can't get in panic mode and start looking confused and stuff like that," junior safety Byron Moore said. "When adversity hits, we've got to keep our composure and keep our mental focus."
Dooley believes the momentum of the Florida game shifted so swiftly that his players never recovered. Florida trailed 20-13 late in the third quarter before scoring three touchdowns in a span of 8 ½ minutes. Even though almost 10 minutes remained in the game when Florida extended its lead to 34-20, Tennessee wouldn't threaten again.
"It was a moment there where too many people were not listening to the voice of reason," Dooley said. "Like I told the team, down 14 with 9:55 to go against anybody in the country, we should have confidence that we can come back and win."
That confidence generally starts with the quarterback.
Tyler Bray's teammates say the junior quarterback has matured and developed into a better leader, but he didn't react well Saturday when Tennessee fell behind. He threw seven straight incompletions to end the game.
"The quarterback's role is always to be a leader," Bray said. "I'm working on it. I've got to get better and hopefully just move forward."
Dooley said Bray must do a better job of avoiding frustration when things aren't going his way.
"When he gets frustrated and things that are out of his control start bothering him, he doesn't perform as well," Dooley said. "He knows that. He'll grow from it and learn from it. Nobody wants to play well more than Tyler, and sometimes he probably wants to play well too hard."
Dooley says that desire to win is prevalent throughout the team. He said the Vols took the Florida loss harder than any previous defeats since his arrival. He believes the team remains confident enough to avoid that kind of collapse again.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Until Tennessee delivers in the fourth quarter against a top opponent, questions will linger. The next time the Vols face adversity down the stretch, will they react the same way they did against Florida?
"Hopefully not," Bray said. "Who knows? We won't know until we get there."