KNOXVILLE — There were elements of the Tennessee football team's approach to Saturday's season opener at Neyland Stadium that resembled behavior associated with a scrimmage.
The Volunteers substituted pretty liberally. Outside of a few players, they showed little emotion.
Tennessee was facing Georgia State, which began playing in 2010 as a Football Championship Subdivision program, then moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference three years later. The Panthers, who never have won more than seven games in a season, went 2-10 last year — and entering this season they had never beaten an opponent from one of the Power Five conferences.
There are certainly more accomplished programs on the Vols' 2019 schedule, including BYU, which visits this Saturday for a 7 p.m. kickoff. Two weeks from then, Tennessee opens its Southeastern Conference schedule at Florida.
Second-year Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt may have even hinted where the team's priorities were in a recent interview, when he responded to a question about how the Vols have handled the heat during preseason practices by simply saying, "I'm sure it's hot in Gainesville."
Three hours after losing the pregame coin toss for their season opener, the Vols tried to make heads or tails of a 38-30 defeat at the hands of a 26-point underdog.
"I've got one word: flabbergasted," senior safety Nigel Warrior said.
Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who threw for 311 yards and two touchdowns but was charged with two of the team's three turnovers against the Panthers, voiced his frustration after the stunning upset.
"I'm disgusted, to be honest," he said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat this. I'm really upset right now, and I'm pissed. Why shouldn't we be? We lost a game.
"Going into the season we had high expectations, and none of those expectations go away. A lot of teams lose their first game and they go on and do so and so. We just have to go back to the drawing board and do a lot of film study, and just clean it up."
Pruitt is now 0-2 in season openers as a head coach, but the Vols' 40-14 loss to West Virginia a year ago was a neutral-site game against a Power Five program ranked in the top 20 of both major polls.
Georgia State was not. The Panthers figured out they could succeed running the option, though, and of their 46 offensive plays in the second half, 33 were rushes. They gained 160 yards on those 33 runs.
"You give Georgia State credit," Pruitt said. "They did things on both sides on the ball that maybe we weren't prepared for, or maybe we thought we were prepared for. We didn't execute like we needed to. The other thing is, you have to go back and look in the mirror. What can I do better? That is what you have to do, because everybody wants to blame somebody else. It is like what I told them last year at this time, we lost to West Virginia, I asked them, 'Do you get extra scholarship money because we lose to West Virginia and Georgia State?'
"Georgia State has scholarship guys just like us. My hat is off to them. They have done a really nice job. We have to go back and go to work and improve because next Saturday night there will be a team coming in that is probably going to be better than them. It will keep happening that way. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will probably win the game next Saturday night just like they will win in week six, week eight and week 12. That's what happens. We have to be that team that doesn't beat ourselves. We have to quit beating ourselves before we beat somebody else."
Tennessee linebacker Darrell Taylor, a fifth-year senior, is looking forward to the opportunity for progress.
"It was only one game, no matter who we lost to, no matter if it's the biggest team, the No. 1 team or the 31st team – it doesn't matter," he said. "I think it'll be easier for us to bounce back because it's our first game. It's a learning lesson, and we have 11 more opportunities to go out there. We just have to make sure we're not doing the same things as this week that we did to lose this game and make sure we get better from it."