What did Tennessee offensive coordinator Alex Golesh see this past Saturday from the Sanford Stadium coaching booth as the Volunteers were getting blanketed 27-13 by Georgia?
What the sold-out crowd of 92,746 saw, as well as the 13.3 million viewers on CBS in the most-watched game of the college football season.
"I think what slowed us down Saturday was us -- the pre-snap penalties and not executing in critical times in the red zone, which goes back to the pre-snap penalties," Golesh said Tuesday in a news conference. "I think they've got really good players. I think there are a lot of teams in this league that have really good players. We've played really good players.
"They played better than us on Saturday, and the environment at times was not handled well by us, both the players and coaches. That's on the coaches for not being ready in that aspect."
The No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings entered Athens averaging a nation-leading 553.0 yards per game but was held to 289 against the Bulldogs. The Vols had just 187 yards through three quarters, when Georgia had built a 27-6 advantage and was letting the air out of the biggest contest of this regular season.
Tennessee sustained eight pre-snap penalties, and Heisman Trophy front-runner Hendon Hooker was sacked six times. Golesh was asked Tuesday whether Hooker held the ball too long.
"I don't believe that to be the case," he said. "Where Hendon has been exceptional is in his timing, his ball placement and his reads. They've been impeccable throughout the year. Now, you take the environment and the fact you're playing a really good football team on the road -- did we handle that the best way we could? A lot of the third downs were clock stoppage, and are we handling it the right way?
"That's where our process for us has to be right in terms of how we prepare our guys. It was our first time in that situation of being the No. 1 team in the country. In terms of him holding on to the ball too long, I would say no."
The Vols, who are 8-1 overall and 4-1 in Southeastern Conference play, have turned their attention to this week's test against visiting Missouri, which dropped to 4-5 and 2-4 within the league with Saturday's 21-17 home loss to Kentucky. Golesh was open for questions about the Tigers, though most still centered on the Bulldogs.
"They had a really good scheme, and they played well," he said. "We have a really good scheme, and we didn't play well. Schematically, we were sound.
"We were just behind the chains with the pre-snap penalties the entire night."
Some teams are slow-starters during games with noon kickoffs, but that has not been the case with Tennessee.
In their two early kicks so far this season at LSU and at home against UT Martin, the Vols built a combined 75-14 halftime lead. Tennessee has its third noon start Saturday.
"It may be how we go about our everyday routine," fifth-year senior safety Trevon Flowers said. "We're up early. We practice early and get it in, and it's kind of how our bodies work. We're just ready to go by 12 o'clock.
"On most days, by 12 o'clock, our practices are over."
Last season, in noon games against Pittsburgh, Tennessee Tech, Missouri and South Carolina, the Vols led by a combined 80-3 after the first quarter.
Into a rhythm
Tennessee fifth-year senior linebacker Juwan Mitchell was viewed as a tackling machine when he transferred from Texas following the 2020 season. He had led the Longhorns that year with 62 stops, but a shoulder injury last season prevented the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder from playing past September.
Mitchell has now led the Vols in tackles in consecutive games, tallying eight apiece against Kentucky and Georgia.
"I think Juwan is getting into a little bit of rhythm," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "I like to think he's starting to feel his groove, so to speak. I think it's a combination of him being healthy and the way teams have tried to attack us to a degree.
"I'm proud of the direction he's headed."
Back on top
Cedric Tillman led the Vols in receptions this past weekend, amassing seven catches for 68 yards in the losing effort.
It was the first time the 6-3, 215-pound, fifth-year senior had topped the team since his 162-yard output on nine receptions at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10, when he caught the game-winning score from 28 yards out in overtime. Tillman suffered a high-ankle sprain the following week against Akron that sidelined him for more than a month.
"He played the entire game against Georgia," Golesh said. "Ramel (Keyton) spelled him a little bit, but Ced looks like his old self and maybe has fresh legs a little bit. He made some plays that were hard to make, and the guy (Kelee Ringo) covering him was as good as we've seen all year.
"I thought Ced won his share of battles. I think he's knocked the rust off, and it's really good to have him back."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.