KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's most anticipated football season in nearly a decade turned into a circus before the calendar flipped to November.
The Volunteers' 5-0 start, highlighted by the streak-snapping win against Florida, a victory at a NASCAR track and the Hail Mary at Georgia, has fizzled into a three-game losing streak accompanied by the midseason departures of two former five-star recruits: wide receiver Preston Williams and running back Jalen Hurd.
In the wake of the inexcusable loss at South Carolina the swirl of negativity around Tennessee is at an all-time high in the program's fourth year under Butch Jones.
"This football team's fine," Jones said. "This football program's fine. I love our fan base. Everything is fine. We're going to be just fine."
That was how Jones wrapped up his news conference Monday, a 31-minute session filled with questions about Hurd's decision and why the Vols are 5-3 in what was supposed to be the breakthrough season for the program, plus Jones' bizarre touting of a third straight year of bowl eligibility in a season that began with championship aspirations.
Tennessee is ranked near the bottom of the SEC in penalties and turnovers. The regression of the offense is puzzling. For only brief spurts have the Vols played to their potential, and Saturday's loss proved the Vols, whose rash of injuries on defense can't be ignored, simply aren't a very good team.
When losses begin to mount, frustration is hard to contain from coaches and players and fans, and the turn this season has taken has turned the pressure up on Jones from Tennessee's passionate and vocal fan base.
"I don't listen to any of that," he said. "Just a few weeks ago everything was great. We live in a week-to-week season and that's the job and responsibility of the head football coach. I take great pride in that, and that means nothing."
Jones is frustrated, too. His most talented and veteran team, for some reason, has been his most undisciplined. He's watched video of every one of the team's 50 penalties in hopes of pinpointing what's caused them.
In his first three seasons the Vols played with a noticeable edge and energy and effort, all of which were absent in the blowout loss to Alabama and the lifeless performance at South Carolina.
"We have to get back to playing our style of play," Jones said. "We lost our way. We lost our edge. We hang ourselves on great effort. We hang ourselves on great energy. I'd be sitting up here and misleading you if I said we played with great effoert and great energy for 60 minutes. We did not.
"I give South Carolina a lot of credit. They out-executed us, they outplayed us, they outcoached us — they did it all. They wanted to win that football game. Sometimes it maybe takes a moment like that."
Jones hinted that a nadir like Saturday night can rejuvenate a team and point it in the right direction. There's no question there are players on this team frustrated by playing time, their roles or losing. Some made their feelings known on social media.
Todd Kelly Jr. and Darrin Kirkland Jr. put out tweets promoting team unity, while freshman Tyler Byrd wondered why the Vols can't play the game how it's meant to be played and simply have fun.
Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, the crown jewel of Tennessee's 2016 signing class, caused a stir Sunday when he posted on Twitter a picture of a hanging pair of cleats with the caption "All things must come to an end" in addition to removing references of the Vols from his profile page.
It turns out, according to Jones, he'd simply lost in a soccer video game.
"He lost in a FIFA game," the coach said, "and those were soccer cleats that he tweeted out."
Jones said his team is disappointed by Saturday's result and hungry to turn the season around. He's hearing and seeing what he'd like to see from them. The Vols had a team meeting Sunday night to hash everything out.
Tennessee actually still has a chance to win 10 games this season, and its SEC East hopes aren't officially dead yet with division leader Florida still facing difficult road games at Arkansas and LSU, but reaching one or both of those benchmarks would require the Vols to hold it together long enough to play well enough to win four games they shouldn't lose.
"When you lose a few games, everyone wants to point fingers and think the sky is falling and something's on fire and all that," Jones said. "I do think our football team is close, but I think there's a separation (and) there has to be a separation between friendship and leadership. There's a big difference there in holding each other accountable.
"We meet periodically on Sundays, and we met Sunday. And I thought we probably had one of the most productive team meetings we've had in a very long time. A lot of it was player-oriented, and our players left that meeting feeling very, very good. I think it's healthy. It's like a family coming together and sitting down over a dinner."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.