TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - It's got to get easier.
That seemed to be the attitude inside the Tennessee locker room following Saturday night's 37-6 loss to No. 2 Alabama.
"We've just got to keep working, keep fighting, and we'll be fine," said UT senior linebacker Austin Johnson, who was more than fine in the first quarter, when he hauled in the first interception of an AJ McCarron pass in 152 attempts.
"The older guys just need to step up and be leaders and not let the younger guys be affected by the stuff that's happening.
What's happening next is South Carolina, which will arrive at Neyland Stadium off a freshening off week, while the Volunteers attempt to rebound from three straight physically, mentally and emotionally draining losses to Georgia, LSU and Bama.
"Better chemistry," Vols defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "We need guys playing better for four quarters. I think we've done a good job for 30 minutes. We've just got to do a better job finishing games."
Indeed, the Vols have been outscored 83-22 in the second half of their four SEC contests, all losses, as their record fell to 3-4 overall.
Moreover, with UT coach Derek Dooley's insertion of true freshman quarterback Justin Worley in the fourth quarter, the Vols just might be looking at rolling the dice with a rookie quarterback down the stretch for the second year running.
In a situation eerily similar to last season, when Dooley benched Matt Simms after a loss at South Carolina in favor of Tyler Bray, Simms again lose his spot to a freshman heading into this week's South Carolina game at Neyland Stadium.
The only difference - should Dooley make that move - is that Worley presumably would only be keeping Bray's spot warm for him until Bray's injured thumb heals in time to face either Vanderbilt, Kentucky or both at the end of the year.
"We'll go back and look at the film," said Dooley, who added of his decision to forfeit the freshman's chance for a redshirt. "I don't worry about redshirts."
What all the Vols must worry about now is a losing season, which would knock them out of a bowl bid for the third time since 2005.
All of which brings us back to this weekend's visit from South Carolina, which currently leads the SEC East.
Said UT kicker Michael Palardy, who booted a career-high 52-yard field goal against the Crimson Tide: "This game is going to be the difference-maker for how our season is going to end up."