KNOXVILLE -- Two weeks ago, Tennessee was 48 hours removed from an upset of South Carolina and riding the high of the program's first win against a ranked team in four years.
The Volunteers have crashed back to Earth since then with two humbling losses on the road against top-10 teams.
In Saturday's night 31-3 loss at Missouri, Tennessee might have played its worse game of the season, and first-year coach Butch Jones didn't hide his disappointment in how the Tigers physically controlled the game and the handful of mistakes his own team made.
His postgame message to the team, though, didn't change much from the blowout loss to No. 1 Alabama the previous week.
"Same thing," Jones said after the game. "Our goal as a football program is to get to a bowl game. We've got to win two games, and we have three games left. We've got to win three. Our expectation is to win every game, but I think it's learning from your mistakes so you don't make those mistakes over and over and over again.
"There can be no quit. There can be no give-up. And I asked them, I said, 'What's going to make Team 117 different? What's going to make this senior class different? What's going to make them different?' From leadership to keep working every day and keep believing. I know we have good character in our football program, and we have to continue to move forward."
It shouldn't be difficult for the Vols to review what felled them in Columbia and move on to Auburn. Like Missouri, Gus Malzahn's Tigers are one of the SEC's biggest surprises at 8-1 after beating Arkansas in Fayetteville on Saturday night. The Tigers, now up to 7th in this week's Associated Press poll, have won five straight since losing to LSU.
Tennessee enters its final three games at 4-5 just like it did last season, albeit under much different circumstances.
"This is where the seniors have to step up," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "The senior leadership will tell the direction of this team. We're going to get this thing right and right the ship. We've still got our goals intact. We've got to get better."
The Vols doubled their season averages with nine penalties and 65 yards. Tennessee turned the ball over three times and forced none against Missouri. An offense that took eight of its 14 possessions into Tiger territory scored just three points.
Those are just the mistakes the Vols can control.
Jones said his team's defensive lack of speed was "glaring" against a Missouri team with a solid group of wide receivers and an offense that gets the ball out on the perimeter and in space.
"We have to get what we can get and continue to improve our team speed, and that's obviously that's a premium in recruiting," the coach said. "They exposed us in some areas, and it's a matchup game. We've got to improve our speed. That's all I can say.
"We've got to coach better. We've got to play better. I said it when the season started: We have to be a blue-collar football team. Our margin of error is very, very small. We have to be able to overachieve in anything and everything to match up. We didn't do that tonight."
For only the third time in the past five seasons, Tennessee allowed an opponent to rush for more than 300 yards. Missouri's 339 yards following up Florida's 336-yard output in Knoxville last season and a 359-yard explosion by Ole Miss and the speedy Dexter McCluster in 2009.
"That's definitely one of our main things," safety Brian Randolph said of stopping the run. "We didn't keep our gaps. We created too many holes, and we didn't get the job done."
Now Auburn comes to town averaging 306 yards rushing per game, which is 69 yards better than Missouri, the SEC's second-leading rushing offense.
Yet that's just one of the areas Jones and his staff will address this week, and though the Vols have played much better at home than away from Neyland Stadium, the challenge is rediscovering the edge Tennessee found to push Georgia into overtime and beat South Carolina last month.
"I don't think we've taken a step back," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We're not quite sure what it is, but we've got to go get it fixed. Watch this film and get it fixed, because we've got a great opponent in Auburn next week."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...