KNOXVILLE — This one's going to hurt, this 31-24, come-from-waaay-ahead overtime loss Tennessee suffered against Oklahoma on Saturday night. For how long depends on what happens next.
Can the Volunteers put it behind them well enough to beat Florida for the first time in a decade 13 days from today? Or will this fester, that 17-0 Big Orange lead less than three minutes into the second quarter leaving too big a scar to swiftly shake?
Is the real Team 119 the one that forged that 17-0 lead before 102,455 mostly orange-clad fans inside an impressively checkerboarded Neyland Stadium? Or is it the one that appeared to play not to lose down the stretch, running more than passing, choosing to pull back rather than push forward, seemingly playing into OU coach Bob Stoops' hands time and time again?
"We got 'em on the ropes and let 'em off," said UT linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, whose 21 tackles strongly suggested he let no Sooner off the ropes.
He also said, "It's not a good feeling," which surely will be echoed by every UT fan or player or coach who was physically there or watched it on TV or listened to it on the radio or computer.
"This one hurts for sure," said senior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson. "Hard one to accept."
Nor will it be only the second half that Volniacs will second-guess. Those first points, that 19-yard Aaron Medley field goal with just over five minutes gone in the game, will be questioned for days to come, maybe longer, even if they gave the Vols the first points of the night.
That's because No. 23 UT appeared to have less than two feet to go for a touchdown and the seemingly unstoppable Jalen Hurd in the backfield. So why not shove it down the No. 19 Sooners' throats for a 7-0 lead? Why not send a message that we don't care if you are Oklahoma and you've won a national championship since we have and played for three more and your coach makes nearly twice as much as our coach.
We don't care because we're at home, our fans have waited at least eight years for a moment like this and we're going to shove it down your Okie throats and there's nothing you can do about it.
Besides, even if the Vols failed to score, they'd have OU backed up and facing a UT defense that was playing wonderfully early, as witness that 117-37 yardage advantage after one full quarter.
But third-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones took the certain three points, watched the lead swell to 17-0 less than 10 minutes later, a lead that surely had the entire Big Orange Nation dreaming all matter of dreams — SEC East crown, College Football Playoff, national championship game, perhaps — before the second quarter was half done.
Then reality set in. Cold. And Cruel. And unrelenting in the way a slow, powerful glacier is unrelenting. The Sooners kicked a field goal of their own 10 minutes into the second period to cut the lead to 17-3. Midway through the fourth they finally scored a touchdown. Then another 40 seconds from the end of regulation.
Now it was the Vols who appeared in trouble, despite owning 11 overtime wins in their history, the most of any NCAA Division I school.
Yet as if to embrace that history, UT scored first in the overtime. But Oklahoma answered, then scored first in the second period. Finally, the Sooners intercepted a Josh Dobbs pass to claim victory from defeat.
"They made adjustments," Dobbs said of his team's second-half scoring drought. "We've got to be able to adjust and execute on the fly."
In a sense, it was not so terribly different than far too many other game days and nights since the start of 2008, when the Vols blew one at UCLA, then Auburn, and head coach Phillip Fulmer's 16-year run was shockingly over.
Every coach since has suffered at least one of these nightmares. Lane Kiffin, the 12-10 defeat at Alabama his lone season on Rocky Top. Derek Dooley's losses at LSU and in the Music City Bowl his first season before a similar come-from-ahead defeat to Florida sealed his coaching fate. As for Jones, the Georgia loss inside Neyland his first season certainly qualifies. The Florida loss in Neyland last season is a definite.
"Late in the game we stopped playing disciplined defense," Reeves-Maybin said. "Doesn't matter if we were tired or not. We've got a job to do. We didn't get the job done."
In a way, the Vols did everything but get the job done. They took the loudest crowd anyone could remember inside Neyland for at least the past decade and made it momentarily return to that national championship season of 1998, when all things seemed possible. They played marvelous defense for three quarters, holding the Sooners to 173 total yards at that time.
But OU finished with 348 to 254 for the Vols. Fatigue, whether Reeves-Maybin wanted to admit it or not, makes cowards of us all. Or at least overtime losers. It certainly turned another UT dream start into a recurring nightmare.
"Don't ever lose this feeling," Jones said he told his players afterward. "Let it drive you."
Just don't be surprised that finishes such as this are driving the Big Orange Nation to tears.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org