OXFORD, Miss. -- Perhaps the Tennessee football team felt distracted two days after three Volunteers freshmen were arrested in connection with an attempted armed robbery.
Perhaps Ole Miss simply regained the form so many expected earlier this season, when the Rebels rose to a top-five ranking.
Perhaps one of college football's smallest-in-stature stars simply couldn't have been contained by any defense Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps it was all of those things.
It's hard to fathom any one factor being the sole difference in a 42-17 Southeastern Conference shellacking like Ole Miss put on the Vols. That's UT senior defensive tackle Wes Brown's take, anyway.
"It was a combination of things that was just set up for disaster," Brown said. "We've just got to regroup."
That might take more than one day.
The Vols (5-5, 2-4) had lost before Saturday, but they hadn't been hammered. Not at then-No. 1 Alabama. Not at still-No. 1 Florida. Not by any team before Ole Miss.
"I'm very shocked by the outcome," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "We knew coming in that (Ole Miss) was a very, very good team -- very explosive, extremely talented, lot of NFL players. But I thought we would play better today.
"Anything can happen in this game, but I'd be lying if I said I thought this would happen today."
Versatile Ole Miss senior Dexter McCluster shattered several records for both teams, gaining 284 of his staggering 324 yards from scrimmage on runs.
No Rebels player had ever gained so many rushing or all-purpose yards in one game, and UT had never allowed that much to any individual opponent.
"He's by far the best player we've played all year," Vols junior defensive end Chris Walker said of McCluster, a 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior who made big plays as a tailback, wide receiver and special-package quarterback.
"There are some great players down at Florida and at Alabama, but this kid just absolutely did whatever he wanted to us," Walker added. "He's just a great player, a really great player, but I just can't get over how we let one guy beat us."
McCluster opened the scoring with a solid 15-yard run in the first 91 seconds, and his sensational 71-yard run essentially sealed the deal with 13:59 left. In between, he scored on runs of 23 and 32 yards.
"That's not what we're about, what happened today," Brown said. "We couldn't tackle. We were lined up wrong several times. We didn't put ourselves in the right position, and even when we did, we couldn't tackle him.
"Hats off to him. He's a great player. But, man, that was embarrassing."
The Vols knew all week that redshirt freshman Herman Lathers' first SEC start would come at middle linebacker -- the position that sets the defense before every snap -- since previous starters Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier were lost for the season with torn ACLs.
But UT wasn't prepared to lose star freshman free safety Janzen Jackson, who along with cornerback Mike Edwards and wide receiver Nu'Keese Richardson was arrested early Thursday morning near campus.
Coaches and players blamed several factors Saturday, but none suggested an emotional letdown.
Jackson's absence was noticeable -- especially when at least one walk-on took several snaps in nickel and dime situations -- and no one denied that. But all stopped short of singling out that incident.
"Nothing like that is the only reason for this," said senior tailback Montario Hardesty, who finished with 66 total yards on a surprisingly low 17 touches. "We couldn't control that, and we didn't try to. We just came out here and tried to win this game, and we didn't, but that's not why."
Senior offensive guard Cory Sullins swore several times that the coaches discussed the arrests with the team one time before Thursday's practice, and then never again.
"We carried on normal as usual Thursday," Sullins said. "Personally, I honestly forgot about the situation while we were out there until somebody brought it up. I just honestly don't think that had much effect on what happened today."
UT's defense started and finished the game on its heels, but that group had its moments -- including a clutch play from Brown that momentarily turned momentum early in the second half.
A short Daniel Lincoln field goal cut the Vols' deficit to 21-17 with 11:53 left in the third quarter, and Brown dropped back into a zone blitz to intercept a Jevan Snead pass on Ole Miss's next possession. UT took the ball at the Rebels' 43 but gave it back after failing to convert on a third-and-2 and a fourth-and-4.
The Vols didn't touch the ball again until 7:13 later, after Ole Miss drove 62 yards in 13 plays and took a 28-17 lead on a 1-yard Brandon Bolden run.
Kiffin refused to blame Thursday's incident for anything in that game-changing period.
"I don't know how that incident happens and all the sudden we can't tackle, and all the sudden we get the same defensive tackle tackling us in the backfield all day long and (getting) penetration," Kiffin said. "I don't think it has anything to do with that. I've got to do a better job preparing us and a better job of managing the game."
Perhaps off-the-field problems didn't hurt. They certainly didn't help.
And the freshman trio's issues aren't likely to disappear any time soon, as the Vols prepare for next week's second shot at bowl eligibility with a 7 p.m. home game against Vanderbilt.
"This is a big, big, big, big test for our team, with everything that went on Thursday and with the game today," Walker said. "This is going to be a test of our team's character, to see where we are as a team. We have a lot of young guys on the team, and we'll see how they respond to coming in here and not playing very well at all, and getting beat on the road when we were trying to get bowl-eligible. It's just going to come down to our coaches and our leaders just rallying the troops, and I know we will.
"We'll be better next Saturday. We just will. I know it, man. I just know it."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.
Ole Miss crushes TennesseeTennessee fans cheer on the Volunteers during an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Michael H. Miller)