KNOXVILLE — There was no break in the Sunday routine for Tennessee's football team.
As usual, the Volunteers are trying to flush their minds of another Southeastern Conference loss.
As usual, the rumors about the program's future continued to fly.
After another unfriendly October slate, Tennessee enters a more manageable November on a four-game winless streak, and though three of those losses were decided in the fourth quarter, the Vols have the same 0-5 SEC start to show for the close calls.
"They wants results, but we're not giving them results right now," linebacker Herman Lathers said of UT supporters after Saturday's 38-35 loss to South Carolina in Columbia. "To them, we're not a better football team [because] we're not getting it done, but to us, we're a lot better than we were last year and the previous two years. We're making progress, and we've got a long ways to go."
After letting a third-quarter lead evaporate against Florida, turning the ball over three times with a chance to tie Georgia and fumbling with a chance to take a late lead at Mississippi State, Tennessee's narrow loss to the Gamecocks might have been the toughest considering the Vols were 19 yards away from the go-ahead touchdown with barely a minute remaining.
Yet the players that did postgame interviews hardly seemed as distraught as you might expect.
"Everybody's just proud that we kept fighting and competing and fought through the adversity we had," safety Byron Moore said. "We just fell short. It's very frustrating.
"That was pretty much our last test of a big ranked team, so we were hoping we could pull it out. We've just got to keep moving on and just finish out this season strong. I don't even know who we play next."
That would be Troy, which visits Knoxville for a noon kickoff on November's opening weekend. A win against the Trojans from the Sun Belt Conference wouldn't change the Vols' imperfect SEC record. But it'd at least change the same old Sunday routine.
"It's getting old," receiver Cordarrelle Patterson said. "We're just going in every week and working so hard. We expect to win, but things ain't been going right."
"Tired of losing," added linebacker AJ Johnson. "It's just something that keeps happening. We've got to change it."
The best way to do that would be to play better defense, but the Vols are running out of answers. Now ranked 99th nationally and last in the SEC in yards allowed, Tennessee has allowed 27 more points in eight games this season (271) than it did all of last season (244). Simplifying the scheme and changing personnel have had almost no impact on first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri's bunch.
"I'll give some big-picture, philosophical opinions, but I'm not going to tell them what call to run," third-year coach Derek Dooley said of his role with the defense. "I spend all my hours on offense and special teams, and I don't know anybody that can do all three. I want to meet him if he can."
Dooley's said he told his team after Saturday's loss that he was proud of their effort and resiliency. With four games remaining, Tennessee has a bowl berth and seven wins, which would be the program's most under Dooley, at stake. How much of an impact the season's final month would have on Dooley's future as coach is something only second-year athletic director Dave Hart knows.
The team managed a week full of such distractions after losing to Alabama, and it'll likely have to do the same throughout the season's final month.
"Everyone's always talking about, 'Coach Dooley's on the hot seat,' [but] no one really worries about that," said quarterback Tyler Bray. "We try to go out and play every week. He's going to put us in a great position to win, and we've just got to execute, which we've failed to do.
"We've just got to go out there and play for each other."
Tennessee's five losses have to teams with a combined 36-5 record. Those five teams accounted for all but one of those losses, with fifth-ranked LSU's win against South Carolina providing the fifth loss. All five of those teams are ranked in the top 17, and four are in the top 11.
The offensive line and running game have improved from last season and Tennessee has scored 44, 31 and 35 in its three SEC road losses, but what remains on pace to be the worst defense in the program's history continues to grab most of the attention.
Despite failing to beat a ranked SEC opponent, the Vols still have a month left to play.
"We've got to view it as a second season," Dooley said. "There's a lot at stake. The only way to claw your way out of hurting the way our team's hurting is to go out there and win the next one, and that's all we can worry about.
"I'm proud of watching that team out there. Not proud of how we don't get the results. As long as they keep fighting the way they're fighting, good things will eventually happen, and I believe that."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...