KNOXVILLE - On the scoreboard Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, there wasn't an awful lot the Tennessee Volunteers could point to as a positive after a 43-14 loss to No. 3 Georgia.
It was coach Jeremy Pruitt's eighth loss by at least 25 points since taking over prior to the 2018 season, and the Vols fell to 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference this year. The Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0) were bigger, faster, stronger, better.
Yet after the game, Tennessee players spoke optimistically about their performance. A long week in which linebacker Jeremy Banks was dismissed from the program - after a pair of videos showing his arrest for an outstanding warrant and threats to a woman were released by TMZ - ended with an inspired team taking a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter before the Bulldogs scored the final 19 points of the half and the final 33 of the game.
The defense was outclassed by Georgia's balanced attack, giving up 526 yards and failing to put any pressure on quarterback Jake Fromm. Senior safety Nigel Warrior, who had a team-high 10 tackles, said the Vols hope to learn from the frustrating loss.
"It hurts, it makes you feel like you didn't accomplish your goal," he said. "Everybody wants to go out and win, but somebody has to lose and unfortunately it was us. But that feeling just hurts.
"One thing about it, though, is if you can take a loss and turn it into a lesson, then you are going to feel so much better on that Sunday coming in because you know what you want to do. Even though we lost, we got better."
Some of the optimism was due to the performance of freshman quarterback Brian Maurer, who made his first start in place of struggling redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano and threw touchdown passes on Tennessee's second and third possessions of the game. He threw for 205 yards in the first half but struggled in the second, completing just four of seven throws for 54 yards. He was intercepted once and lost a fumble after being sacked by Eric Stokes, with Georgia's Tae Crowder returning the fumble 60 yards for a touchdown.
Maurer was knocked out of the game twice in the second half, the latter after the Stokes sack.
The offense, which was in neutral in the Vols' previous game, a 34-3 loss to Florida on Sept. 21 in which Maurer played in the second half, had 239 yards by halftime against Georgia.
"For us, the scoreboard doesn't depict really how we feel, obviously," tight end Austin Pope said. "Definitely in the first half, we had the lead and we were pounding the ball. We were making really good plays, so I thought it was overall a really good game. Then in the second half we came out and made a ton of mistakes to shoot ourselves in the foot. We've got to go back and correct those things.
"Everybody likes to talk about the details, and I know it sounds cliché, but it literally is. It's a step here. It's a false start. It's just always something. Whenever we go back to the drawing board and everybody watches the film, goes back to what we need to do, everybody wins their one-on-ones and we'll be fine."
Tennessee lost its sixth consecutive game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent dating to a 24-7 win over a 12th-ranked Kentucky team last season, but Pruitt remains focused on the Vols getting better and developing the playing habits he wants to see.
The coach wouldn't commit Saturday night regarding whether Maurer or Guarantano would start Saturday's noon game against Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1), which will be televised by SEC Network, saying he wanted coaches to review video first.
"Our No. 1 goal is to win every game," Pruitt said. "Every game that we play, that's our goal. We don't walk out there saying that we hoped we played well tonight or hope that we play well in the first half; our goal is to find a way to win every game. That's the bottom line, and that will always be our goal.
"Until we start doing that around here, we're not going to stop. That has to be the expectations. Our kids hurt. They put a lot into it. But Georgia made more plays than we did and probably did a better job coaching than we did. It all starts at the top and goes down. We'll go back in the film and see what we need to improve."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.