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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee receiver Brandon Johnson, left, tries to get past Kentucky defensive back Yusuf Corker during Saturday's matchup of SEC East rivals at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. Johnson was the Vols' leading receiver with four catches for 37 yards in the 34-7 loss.

If you're a member of the Big Orange Nation and you expected to see what happened to your University of Tennessee Volunteers on a spectacular Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, raise your hand.

Didn't think so.

Kentucky 34, UT 7?

Inside Neyland Stadium? The Vols had whipped the Wildcats 17 straight times there dating to 1986, which just happened to be the longest home winning streak in the country for one Football Bowl Subdivision program over another.

Talk about rocky times on Rocky Top.

Or as third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said of his team afterward in seeming to criticize his players' heart and hustle: "Talent alone don't make a good football player. You've got to have want-to. You've got to put the time in."

It would seem the time is now for the Vols to either improve or implode. After a 2-0 start, they are 2-2 in this bizarre Southeastern Conference season of only league games. Alabama, which owns 13 straight victories over the Vols, visits Neyland next weekend.

Yet what's equally troubling for Pruitt, his staff and the players may be the way they lost back-to-back games after fairly impressive victories at South Carolina and over Missouri. Over the past six quarters, at Georgia on Oct. 10 and against the Wildcats on Saturday, the Vols have been outscored 61-7.

A halftime lead against the Bulldogs in Athens became a 27-point loss. Then Kentucky posted its largest victory over Tennessee since 1935, turning its 10-point halftime edge, 17-7, into a second straight 27-point embarrassment for the Vols.

What may come to most concern Volniacs everywhere is wondering if there are at least as many problems off the field as on, that this 2020 team, seemingly so close and connected down the stretch of Pruitt's second season, may be lacking in leadership from the top down in his third.

From Pruitt: "We've got to improve our habits."

Also from Pruitt about the Jarrett Guarantano pass in the flat that led to a Kentucky pick-six and a 7-0 lead: "I wasn't crazy about the call."

Yes, he also blamed himself for this loss, but when you're sort of, kind of throwing others under the bus less than halfway through the season, something's bubbling beneath the surface, and it's not champagne.

Especially when you have a couple of your key players espousing the same general thoughts.

After Pruitt singled out Henry To'o To'o for being dedicated enough to watch video of Kentucky in the football complex at 1 a.m. this past week, the linebacker said of such preparation: "Instead of me being in there, I've got to bring others with me. We've got to come together as one. We've got to play all four quarters. We've got to tell each other what we're doing wrong, even if it's an uncomfortable situation."

Added sophomore running back Eric Gray, who led the Vols with 128 rushing yards: "You can't coach effort. We've got to go out there and play hard every play."

He also said this: "Our whole team has to do a better job of preparing for games, from the coaching staff down to the players."

To this point — though the SEC has limited game captains for coin flips to one per team — when To'o To'o, a sophomore, is your game captain, as he was Saturday, instead of an upperclassman, you wonder about your team's veteran leadership.

Of course, it may be that this wretched performance was nothing more than Tennessee being unable to find much focus or emotion against a team it had beaten 33 of the previous 35 times they'd met. And that's somewhat understandable.

For so long, multiple decades to be precise, UK has been The Cure for UT. Need a win to be bowl eligible? Thank you, Cats. Need to start Thanksgiving week in style? You're the best, Big Blue. Need to convince a standout Kentucky prep player such as Luke Stocker or Chester Ford to sign with the Vols? (Would you really want to play for a school that has lost to the Big Orange 26 straight times, as was the case before the Cats' 2011 win?)

Then there's the hangover possibility. The Vols just may not have been able to bounce back from their dispiriting effort at Georgia the way they needed to against an opponent that now has won two straight, giving up but nine total points combined against Mississippi State and in Knoxville.

Yet when players and coaches alike are discussing effort and focus, you also wonder what's going on behind closed doors. And if the Alabama game goes the way most believe it will — which means it will go badly for the Vols — then the state of UT football just might be about to get worse before it gets better, the glow of that eight-game winning streak connecting last season to this one more trick than treat.

As Gray was being interviewed by the media on Saturday, he said, "Coach Pruitt has been at this game for a long time, so he knows what to do (to fix things)."

Just don't expect those improvements to become noticeable until after the Alabama game.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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