Wiedmer: UT Vols need to shake off big punch

Wiedmer: UT Vols need to shake off big punch

September 17th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Oregon's Marcus Mariota avoids Tennessee's LaDarrell McNeil during an NCAA college football game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Bruce Ely)

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

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Delivering what could only be described as a knockout quote, former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."

So what is the Tennessee football team's plan after its formerly perfect season was punched silly in Saturday's 59-14 loss at No. 2 Oregon?

"We can't let this go downhill," senior offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James said Monday. "Last year, after the third week, it kind of went downhill."

A brief glance at recent history will inform Volniacs throughout the land that it wasn't just last season that went downhill after the third game.

Largely because this week's foe, Florida, has been the third game on UT's schedule the past seven years, the Volunteers not only have lost Week No. 3 in all those cases (they've dropped eight straight to the Gators overall) but also dropped four of their next five games each of the past three seasons.

Even throwing in the two seasons before that, Tennessee went 3-2 in 2009 and 2-3 in '08 in those five contests following Florida. To make that worse, in the four SEC games played each year after the Gators, UT is a humbling 3-17 over the past five autumns.

"We never really developed that mental toughness last season to overcome the bad things that happened," said senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood. "We can't let that happen this time. We've got to follow Coach [Butch] Jones's rule about Snap and Clear. You've got to forget about it, clear it from your mind."

Perhaps because Florida is the first Southeastern Conference game of the season, Hood and the rest of Team 117 hope to clear their minds far more easily of the debacle delivered by the Duck Dynasty.

The senior from Knoxville even said as much, noting, "This is Florida week. This is what Tennessee is all about."

Once upon a time that was true. From 2001 through 2004 -- Hood's fifth-grade to eighth-grade years -- the Vols won three of four against the Gators. Not coincidentally, UT reached the SEC title game in two of those seasons, 2001 and 2004, though it lost both contests.

Then Urban Meyer took over the Gators in 2005, followed by Will Muschamp two years ago, and the Big Orange has laid a big zero ever since, dropping those eight straight games by an average score of 31-16.

Listen to Jones as he prepares to face Florida for the first time as the Vols coach and you wonder how different this visit to the Swamp can possibly be from the previous four, which have all ended in defeat.

"Oregon is a fine, fine football team," Jones said. "But when you look at Florida, they define SEC defense. They've got a lot of guys who will play on Sunday [in the future]. They've already done something I don't know that I've ever seen before after two games. They've allowed two out of 24 third-down-conversion attempts."

The Vols' best hope for Saturday is that Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel delivers a similar disaster to the one he turned in earlier this month against Miami, when he technically was responsible for three turnovers, though the receiver reportedly ran the wrong route on one of his two interceptions.

Still, he's coughed it up 10 times in Florida's last three defeats -- Miami, Louisville in the Sugar Bowl and against Georgia -- and a similar performance against the Vols could keep this one close.

Yet there's also a sense around UT's camp that this may be at least half as much about the Vols' attitude as Florida's talent.

"I don't think I've ever been as depressed after a loss," Hood said. "We didn't really have [Oregon's] respect. That's rock bottom."

But he also said this, saying it with confidence, something that hasn't been said with any conviction around Knoxville in quite awhile before an SEC contest following a Week 3 defeat: "The easiest way to make up for this is to go back out there and win."

Too bad that plan's been much easier to say than do of late around Big Orange Country after UT has suffered a punch to the face.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.