KNOXVILLE - Somewhere on the road, Tennessee lost its edge.
Or perhaps the Volunteers simply left it in Knoxville.
Either way, the style of play that nearly earned them a win over Georgia and did grant them an upset of South Carolina two weeks later was nowhere to be found in blowout losses to Alabama and Missouri.
Now Tennessee is hoping to rediscover it Saturday against seventh-ranked Auburn, the Vols' third consecutive top-10 opponent and fifth in 10 games this season.
"We've just got to know," safety Brian Randolph said, "that we're capable of performing to a high level, because we proved it to ourselves against South Carolina and Georgia. We get to be back at home, so that'll probably help us a little bit. We've just got to have a good week of practice.
"That's a big thing for us, the home-field advantage. We've got a good crowd and good fans, so that's always an extra boost for us."
Tennessee has been drastically better in Neyland Stadium than away from its 102,455-seat home, and the past four weeks have borne that out. Against Georgia and South Carolina, the Vols limited their mistakes and battled back from deficits to get the game into the fourth quarter. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Columbia, Mo., Tennessee trailed by 35 and 21 at halftime.
"I think the team has a great atmosphere when we are at home," center James Stone said. "When we play at Neyland, it gets the team going. That's where our big performances have come this season. I think the team is really looking forward to playing at home again in front of our crowd.
"It helps us, too, by playing these meaningful games in front of our crowd."
The Vols are trying to secure two more wins in order to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010, but that won't happen if they play as they have the last two weeks.
While the opponents had much to do with it, Tennessee was minus-4 in turnover ratio the past two games. Two of the lowest rushing-yardage totals of the season for the Vols' offense coincided with two of the biggest yards-allowed totals by the Vols' defense, which allowed the Crimson Tide and Tigers to pile up 981 yards and average nearly 6 yards per rush.
"You as a coach have to be consistent," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "The players have to feel that you have a plan and that we're consistent with our approach and with our message every week. Nothing changes.
"We've just got to keep re-emphasizing it and keep going to work every day and getting better."
The Vols weren't perfect in their performance against Georgia and South Carolina, but they gritted out those games and put themselves in position to win. They had the advantage in time of possession in both games and forced the Gamecocks and Bulldogs to go 8-of-27 in turning third downs into firsts. The Vols ran the ball 82 times and threw it just 36 times in those two games. Tennessee passed 42 times against Missouri and ran less than 30 times in both losses.
The intangibles first-year coach Butch Jones wants in his teams made a cameo appearance, but they've been missing the past two weeks.
"You go back to the basics, and we keep showing them, we keep preaching it, we keep working on it in practice," Jones said. "Every game's a new game, every game's a new opportunity, but you keep a consistent approach and you keep going through it.
"When I talked about our team being youthful -- not just in age, but in the learning curve of what it takes to play winning football -- that's a lot of what you're talking about."
And it's what the Vols will need to pull off another upset against the Tigers on Saturday.
"We revert back to our habits, and those habits are in our identity," defensive end Jacques Smith said. "Those intangibles that we've played with before, they're in us and we know it.
"We've seen it in our play earlier this season, and we've just got to continue to grind and work on those smaller-detailed things that will help us be better once it comes to a point in the game where we're looking for something to happen."
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