KNOXVILLE - A fan base that had been waiting for something tangible to cheer for and a head coach who entered the season facing an uncertain future still are waiting for a signature win.
After leading for much of the first three quarters, thanks in large part to a goal line stand to force a field goal just before halftime, Tennessee's offense stagnated in the second half, and its defense surrendered a highlight reel of big plays to Florida in a 37-20 win for the Gators.
It is the eighth-straight loss to Florida for the Vols. It brought added frustration after a week of hype and hope that the program would claim the biggest win in Derek Dooley's three seasons as coach.
A stadium packed with 102,455 fans, most of whom were decked out in faded orange, were hoping to set off on a chorus of "Rocky Top" that would last well into the night. Instead, a more familiar sound in recent years -- booing -- was heard cascading down from the stands late in the fourth as UT's offense struggled.
"Dang if it didn't seem like we would just reload the gun and shoot ourselves in the foot over and over in the second half," said Red Bank resident Sean Dunwoody, whose family has had season tickets in the south upper deck since 1976.
"I came to my first game when I was 3 and haven't missed many since," Dunwoody said. "This was the first time I've seen the atmosphere before a game so energized since 2007. ... This time there was a real feeling of hope. It looked like Coach Dooley finally had the depth and playmakers to compete in the SEC. But now it just feels like the last few years all over again."
Excitement unknown since Tennessee won the 2007 SEC East title began building last Sunday when the Vols claimed a spot in the Top 25 national rankings (No. 23) for the first time since early in the 2008 season. The pregame buzz picked up later that day when ESPN announced it would bring its popular Game Day crew to campus for the first time in eight years.
But after impressive wins over North Carolina State and Georgia State, the lingering question remaining was whether the Vols could beat an opponent it didn't simply outclass in talent.
After allowing three big-play scoring drives of three plays or fewer in the second half, UT lost to a ranked opponent for the 18th time in the last 19 such meetings.
It is a program, and a proud fan base, that has been forlorn the past four years and racked up two consecutive losing seasons for the first time in 100 years.
UT followed the 2007 SEC East title with a dismal 2008 that led to Phillip Fulmer's firing and an eventful, but mostly unproductive, one-year stint by Lane Kiffin. That ended with him bolting for the Southern California job just one month before National Signing Day.
After going 31 years with only two head coaches (Fulmer and Johnny Majors), Dooley is the Vols' third in four years. And with SEC road games coming at Georgia and Mississippi State in the next three weeks, he is still searching for a win to relieve the tension, years in the making.