KNOXVILLE - If any team in college football needs an extra week to regroup and a Saturday off, it's probably Tennessee.
After all, the Volunteers have played four teams ranked in the top 11 with a combined record of 34-4 the past four weeks.
Since rallying to beat South Carolina, Tennessee's been hammered by Alabama, Missouri and Auburn the past three games, but the Vols now have their second open date to regroup and try to get back on track before facing Vanderbilt and Kentucky in need of two wins to reach bowl eligibility.
"You know, the numbers in front of the team doesn't really matter," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said Saturday following the 55-23 loss to Auburn. "We all strap our helmets on and pants on the same. We've got to come out here and play and execute. It's about who wants it more at the end of the day.
"It's been a tough stretch these last couple games, but we've got a bye week, and we've got to come back and regroup and get better as a team, as a defense, special teams and offense."
According to STATS LLC, Tennessee is the first team to play seven ranked teams in an eight-game stretch since Pittsburgh in 1993. The Panthers, in their first season under long-time Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, were 3-8 that season and lost to all seven ranked teams they faced, with six of those defeats coming by at least 21 points.
This year's Vols nearly took out Georgia and upset South Carolina, and four of Tennessee's other five losses came by at least 28 points, including three by more than 30.
"It's been a grind," first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We're playing high-level competition, but again, we have to continue to learn from it. We have to block out the clutter and the distractions, and we have to focus on that process of becoming better.
"We'll recalibrate. We'll come back. We'll practice next week. We'll go out on the road recruiting a little bit like we did the first bye weeks. It's all about our seniors now and finishing for these seniors. They deserve to have some success."
Since showing signs of improvement in October, the Vols appear to have regressed since the season's high point, a 23-21 win against the Gamecocks, whose only other loss this season came in September to a full-strength Georgia team.
Tennessee's defense has allowed 131 points and 987 rushing yards in the past three weeks to teams that exposed a mediocre defensive line and a lack of speed in the secondary. A week after Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk ran for 114 yards against Tennessee, Auburn's Nick Marshall gashed the Vols for 214 on the ground.
An offensive line that starts four seniors and an NFL-bound junior has been plagued by false-start penalties playing with a new quarterback, and Tennessee's offense has struggled to finish drives.
On Saturday, the special teams joined the slide, as Auburn scored two touchdowns and piled up 327 yards on five kickoff returns and two punts returns.
"I told our football team this: with me, love isn't conditional," Jones said. "I love our football team. I love our players. I love them the same I did in December and August and September and October, and we've got two more games left to continue to get better. Again, we have to learn from these mistakes, and as the caretaker of Tennessee football, it kills me [to see them]."
Though the energetic coach said he wished his team could have played Sunday, both tailback Rajion Neal and left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson said the open date is arriving at an appropriate time.
"I think we do [need it]," Richardson said. "I think it's going to be really critical for us getting the pads back on, getting a lot of reps and correcting the things that we need to correct."
"I think it's coming at the perfect time," added Neal, "to give us a chance to go back to the drawing boards, give some guys some rest, let the bodies kind of heal up and just get back to a little fundamentally more sound football.
"It probably has taken a good toll, seeing that some of the competition we've played being in conference. I think in this league, it's going to be physical week in and week out, so I definitely think the bye week is coming at a good time."
Given how the past three weeks have played out for Tennessee, it's difficult to argue the point.
"It's definitely a grind, especially in this league that we play in," Sapp said. "Teams are going to run it right at you. You kind of get beat up and nicked, but you know, we can't let that be an excuse.
"We may have played one of the toughest stretches in college football. We just can't get down on ourselves. We've got Vanderbilt coming in two weeks. We've got a bye week, and we've just got to work on our fundamentals and get better."
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