KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley believes his Tennessee football team took a step forward in Saturday's seven-point loss at fifth-ranked Georgia.
Unlike the debacle of the Volunteers' collapse mid-September against Florida, it was Tennessee's execution that cost it the game rather than a poor response to things going wrong, and while Dooley was proud of his team, he doesn't want his Vols settling for being close.
"I guess it's the first time where we've had that kind of adversity against a top-10 team and worked our way through it, so from that standpoint, yeah, I'm proud of it," the coach told a small group of reporters Monday after speaking to the Knoxville Quarterback Club for nearly 45 minutes.
"They did what I thought they would do and expected them to do. But I think the important lesson is we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for that, because we didn't do what we needed to do to win the football game. We were certainly there and capable and had the opportunity.
"That's what we've got to improve on. We can't ever change that standard of competitiveness. Now that we've got it and and they've proven they can do it, we have to do that every week, and now we've got to learn to execute."
The Vols had Monday off from practice to start the week of their open date. They will practice the next three days.
Tennessee will focus on individual and team objectives and focus on itself this week before turning the attention to 20th-ranked Mississippi State. It'll be the second of three trips in four games to face ranked opponents, assuming the Bulldogs win at Kentucky on Saturday.
Though it had been less than 48 hours since the loss and the Vols had yet to practice, Dooley said he could tell a slight difference in his team's mindset after this defeat compared to the Florida loss.
"They've been the same," he said. "I think there was probably more disappointment, in some ways, in this game, because we're making the steps. The deeper you go into this stuff [and] the more success you have, the harder it is to take the losses."
As proud as Dooley was in his team's resilience, he was equally disappointed in his defense's performance. Georgia rolled up 234 yards and 21 points in the first quarter and took a two-score lead with 206 third-quarter yards. The high-powered Bulldogs combined for just 120 yards in the second and fourth quarters.
"I'm madder than I've ever been because you see two quarters where you're doing the same thing: They're running the same stuff and we look different," Dooley said. "I told them, I could easily say, 'Hey, just keep trying,' if I didn't think you were good enough. But that's not the case.
"We need to be really upset at how we performed."
The open date allows for personnel evaluation, but Dooley suggested he doesn't expect many changes. He told the crowd they were "going to see a lot more of" freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil, who played extensively against Georgia, but freshman cornerbacks Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray, who would help Tennessee's speed issues in the secondary, need to show more in practice.
Dooley said Justin Coleman is "playing really well" and he likes steady-handed Prentiss Waggner.
The same read-and-react issues Dooley said the Vols struggled with last year have continued this season. Tennessee has allowed 28 plays of 20 or more yards in five games after allowing 41 such plays all of 2011. The Vols have surrendered six touchdowns of 51 or more yards in the past three games, with five of those being runs.
"You have a tendency to not realize this could be the play where the ball breaks, so you get a little lazy in your technique and how quick you react," Dooley said. "It's just a really matter of every play, when you're in the secondary and you see run, you've got to assume the ball's breaking, and I'm closing space to go get them. We've got to do a better job of coaching that.
"I don't think the scheme has anything to do with it because we had the same issues last year. We had a lot of big plays last year. The guys that don't do it, we've got to put somebody else in who will do it."
Quarterback Tyler Bray was "gutted" and "crying" after a three-turnover fourth quarter in the loss, Dooley told the crowd. Combined with a 1-for-10 passing fourth quarter against Florida, the junior's two final-period performances against SEC teams haven't been good.
Dooley cited Bray's two first-down turnovers as instances where he needs to throw the ball away and live to see second down.
"I think that his first three quarters are very different than what they were last year, how he's playing and managing the game," Dooley said. "What we've got to make sure Tyler does is don't change anything down the stretch. The only time Tyler gets in trouble is when he feels like he has to make a play -- that's when he finds himself making a bad play.
"If he just allows the play to present himself and let the team win the game, then we'll be fine."
One fan asked Dooley about a trend CBS analyst Gary Danielson noticed during Saturday's game. Danielson pointed out that the Vols run the ball every time a tailback lines up a yard behind Bray to his left or right in the shotgun. After Tennessee ran for 197 yards, Dooley joked that he'd continue to do it and send the entire run-game package to Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen.
Later, though, he said the Vols would examine it this week.
"We always do quality control," Dooley said. "We're going to analyze all that we're doing and see if we are tipping, if we aren't tipping, what we are doing well, what we aren't and correct anything."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.