KNOXVILLE - So just how bad are North Carolina State and Georgia State anyway?
Tennessee did more than lose its eighth straight football game against Florida on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. Not that that 37-20 defeat wasn't bad enough, especially since UT led 20-13 midway through the third period.
But what was equally troubling was the gnawing, numbing belief that Derek Dooley's third team may be little better equipped to compete against the top half of the Southeastern Conference than his first two squads.
It didn't seem that way heading into this game. Not after the Vols whipped a supposedly respectable Wolfpack squad 35-21 in the opener before crushing overmatched Georgia State 51-13 last week.
But if a No. 18 Florida team that seemed not much better than average entering this game could outscore the Big Aren't 24-zip over the game's final 22 minutes and 33 seconds, what foul fate awaits the Doolittles at Georgia and South Carolina, not to mention that ghastly Oct. 20 visit from No. 1 Alabama?
If seemingly owning every advantage -- home field, ESPN's "GameDay" crew in the house, a beat-up bunch of Gators playing their second SEC road game in two weeks -- could lead to this, how much will Neyland's concessionaires have to further discount bottled water and pizza to lure fans back from this point forward?
Beyond that, perhaps most disturbing of all, three games into his junior season, Tyler Bray has yet to defeat or even scare a single member of the traditional top half of the SEC.
For now, he remains far more Bray the Bully than Bray the Bull.
Yes, there seemed to have been much improvement early in this twilight tussle. The Vols led 14-10 at intermission, the crowd of more than 102,000 in full throat following an impressive goal-line stand just before the horn.
In the house to have his No. 45 jersey retired both belatedly but deservedly, former coach Johnny Majors clinched his fists inside the press box and yelled, "That's the way to play!"
And that good work appeared as if it would continue when the Vols completed an 81-yard, 12-play drive for a touchdown midway through the third to lead 20-13.
But new starting kicker Derrick Brodus missed the extra point that would have padded that advantage to 21-13, and from that moment on, for whatever the reason, in Dooley's disappointed words, "We hit a bad stretch at the wrong time."
Here's your bad stretch:
From that 7:33 mark of the third period until the final horn, the Vols totaled 35 yards of offense and no points while Florida piled up 311 yards and 24 points.
To make matters worse, UT had zero yards of offense in the final period.
"We just need a better job of responding," said UT defensive back Prentiss Waggner. "We kind of hung our heads."
The play when the fans began to hang their heads came when the Vols' Marsalis Teague failed to shove Florida's Trey Burton out of bounds as he raced down the right sideline late in the third.
Burton raced 80 yards and the Vols were tied. Then they fell behind 27-20 late in the period, a scene witnessed far too often the past five or six seasons in Big Orange Country.
When the Gators struck again for a 75-yard touchdown pass five minutes into the fourth to lead 34-20, you immediately could watch a steady march to the exits by UT's deflated fans.
"We knew we would be the ones to stop us, and that's just what happened," Bray said after having two passes intercepted and suffering his first two sacks of the season.
"We fell apart."
That's the one point the entire Big Orange Nation would agree with.