TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Butch Jones often reminds his players that a football game's outcome can come down to a handful of key plays.
The third-year Tennessee coach's point was proven again Saturday, when the Volunteers couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead in a 19-14 loss at Alabama, which was ranked eighth in the nation at the time and moved up to No. 7 on Sunday.
For the third time this season, Tennessee let a late lead get away in a loss.
"Every loss is painful, because you invest so much in it," Jones said after the game. "Everyone talked about the culture and the belief. We believed we were going to win the football game coming here. We believed that we were going to win the football game.
"We came up short, and I hurt, but these kids have invested so much, the coaches invest so much, the support staff invests so much — every time you lose it's gut-wrenching."
It couldn't have been any easier for the Vols to watch some of their missed opportunities while reviewing game video on Sunday.
After running back Jalen Hurd scored to put Tennessee up 14-13 with a little less than six minutes to go, the defense took the field with a chance to get a key stop, but three plays ultimately shifted that series in the Crimson Tide's favor.
On the first, the Vols pressured Jake Coker — as they had throughout the game — but the Alabama quarterback escaped and turned a potential loss of as much as 10 yards into only a 2-yard deficit.
On the ensuing second-and-12, ArDarius Stewart made an acrobatic catch over Justin Martin — the junior college transfer cornerback who flashed some promise in his most significant playing time to date — for a 26-yard gain into Tennessee territory.
After Tennessee bottled up Derrick Henry on two straight plays, Coker lobbed a back-shoulder throw toward Calvin Ridley along the sideline on third-and-6, and the freshmen came down with the 15-yard catch over Cameron Sutton.
"It was great coverage by the corners," Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. "They had them locked up pretty good. They just made the play."
Ridley's catch put Alabama well within field goal range, and two plays later, Henry ran in what would prove to be the winning score.
In a similar script to close losses to Oklahoma and Florida in September, the inability to get a clutch stop late in the game spoiled an otherwise solid effort by Tennessee's defense.
"That's college football. Somebody's going to make a play," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "You're playing against the best people in the country every week. We've got some of the best guys in the country also, so we're going to have our share of plays that we make and they're going to have their share of plays that they make."
Tennessee's offense had 10 possessions against the Tide, and the Vols moved the ball on five of them. Tennessee drove 50, 36 and 57 yards on the series that ended in missed field goals in the first quarter and just before halftime. Both touchdown drives chewed up 75 yards.
"Every loss is tough, especially ones like this where we should've won the game," quarterback Josh Dobbs said.
Thanks to two drives in which the offense went in reverse, the Vols traveled a total of 1 yard on their other five drives, which included two three-and-outs in the first and third quarters. Also, Dobbs was fortunate when Tide defenders dropped potential interceptions on three occasions.
Two first-half drives stalled when the Vols were flagged for a false start and an illegal formation on first down.
On the opening possession of the game, Dobbs was sacked for a 6-yard loss on third down, which turned a 37-yard field goal attempt into the 43-yarder Aaron Medley pushed wide right.
Just before halftime, Ethan Wolf stepped out of bounds before making a catch, and the illegal touching penalty negated the gain inside the Alabama 30. The Vols completed an 8-yard pass to the 33 on the next play, and Medley then missed the 51-yard kick.
"It hurts, just like all the other ones," left tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. "I tried to tell the O-line this, that we can't get used to losing. That happened before when I was younger. We were used to losing. Two years ago, when we came here, guys went into the game thinking we were going to lose. They weren't confident in themselves. This year everyone in the locker room was thinking a 'W.' I'm really excited.
"I mean, we played really well. We just had a few plays that didn't go our way. That gives you confidence moving forward."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.