FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Neither Austin Johnson nor Malik Jackson expected to be at this point.
The two Tennessee seniors enter the final two weeks of their time with the Volunteers with no room for error if either wants to extend their careers and make a bowl game. It's a similar situation to last season, when UT needed four consecutive wins to make the Music City Bowl, but both Johnson and Jackson were thinking this season would be different.
"This is the season for us, really," said Johnson, the linebacker who intercepted his third pass in four games in Saturday night's 49-7 loss at No. 8 Arkansas. "It kind of defines our season. We've got our backs against the wall. I didn't think we'd be at this point, but we are and we've been at this point pretty much my whole career while I've been here.
"It's a challenge that I think this team is ready for, and we know we've got to bow our backs and win these last two games."
The frustration was clearer in Jackson's voice, as he noted some "pointing fingers" from some of the Vols on offense and lamented UT's younger players not responding well when the Razorbacks were piling up points in the program's second-worst loss since the 1920s.
"As a senior you don't like your season to go this way," he said. "I never thought in a million years my senior year would go this way, but that's just the way of the world."
The Vols are thankful to be through the worst part of the schedule, in which three top-eight teams beat them by a combined 104 points. UT has never started 0-6 in the Southeastern Conference until this year. Not since 1962 have the Vols lost six league games, and they've never lost seven.
As usual, UT closes the season with Vanderbilt and Kentucky, two teams the Vols have lost to only once since 1985. The upstart Commodores, who visit Knoxville on Saturday night, are just a win from bowl eligibility under first-year coach James Franklin and enter the game off a 30-point beating of Kentucky and competitive games against Florida and Arkansas.
"These games are very important," said receiver Rajion Neal. "We definitely need to be bowl eligible, but these are two opponents we haven't lost to in years. This is history that we're talking about, so if we drop these two, it could get real bad around here."
It was plenty bad in Fayetteville for the Vols, who gave up nearly nine yards per play to the SEC's top offense. The defense missed numerous tackles, the Vols allowed their first return touchdown on special teams and the offense scored just seven points despite a 376-yard outing, its highest in an SEC game this season by nearly 100 yards.
"We've got to move on, and this team is going to get defined by how it competes the next two weeks," coach Derek Dooley said. "We've got to put this behind us as hard as it is."
UT could get a boost by the possible return of quarterback Tyler Bray, who's missed the five weeks with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. The sophomore has been out of a hard cast for a week, and he was throwing passes before the Arkansas game. UT will evaluate how much the bone has healed to see if he can play this week.
If Bray can't play, freshman Justin Worley likely would make his fourth start, even though he was replaced by Matt Simms early in the fourth quarter against Arkansas. Worley made some nice throws, hitting Neal for 50 yards and Da'Rick Rogers, who had 106 yards on five catches, for another 48-yard gain. However, another costly interception near the goal line doomed Worley in his first road start, and there were numerous poor throws.
"I'm going to prep like I'm the starter, like I have the last two weeks," he said. "Tyler's been throwing the ball around a little bit. Matt's played against South Carolina and Arkansas when I struggled. It's just week in and week out, everybody's got to prep like the starter. As a quarterback, you can't get too high and you can't get too low, [and] I think I've done a good job of that so far."
After two solid games, the defense "took a step back," Johnson said. Though UT ran for 138 yards, its highest in an SEC game this season, it hasn't scored a second-half point in its last five games, and has just one passing touchdown since the Buffalo game six weeks ago.
"When you don't answer the bell at some point, it's hard to sustain it," Dooley said. "We had a lot of chances to answer the bell, and it just wears on you. It's not an adjustment. It probably wears on you guys watching it, doesn't it?
"Yeah, well we've got the same feeling watching it. It's like, 'Answer the bell.'"
Now the Vols don't have much of a choice.
"We've been coming back and saying as seniors, 'We've got to pick it up, it's on us, it's on us,'" Jackson said. "But I've got two games left for this organization. There's going to come a time when I have to hand off the reins and say, 'You guys have got to take initiative for this team because I'm not going to be here.'"
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...