Tough timing

They say "Timing is everything," and this year's University of Tennessee football team is a prime example.

The Vols are 3-3 midway through the 2011 season but, with a little better timing, they conceivably could be 5-1. Consider:

— What if Tennessee had played Florida in October, instead of September? The Gators have dropped three games in a row since losing first-team quarterback John Brantley to a leg injury. The Vols had the misfortune to face Florida Sept. 17 in Game 3, when a healthy Brantley torched them for 15 yards per completion en route to 213 passing yards and two touchdowns. He was a key factor in the Gators' 33-23 win.

— What if Tennessee had played Georgia in Game 2, instead of Game 5? The Vols still would've had superstar wideout Justin Hunter, who was on a record-setting receiving pace before tearing an ACL in Game 3. Hunter burned the Dawgs for 110 yards on four receptions as a freshman in 2010 and might have doubled those numbers in 2011. That could've been the difference between a 12-20 loss and a 21-20 victory.

— What if Tennessee had played LSU in Game 3, instead of Game 6? The Vols would've had star quarterback Tyler Bray, who was averaging 315.8 passing yards per game when he suffered a Game 5 thumb injury. Moreover, the Tigers would've been without QB Jordan Jefferson, who missed the first four games on a disciplinary suspension. Jefferson tormented the Vol defense by rushing nine times for 63 yards in the second half as LSU outscored Tennessee 21-0 to turn a competitive game into a 38-7 romp. The Vols were unlikely to beat LSU even with Bray in action and Jefferson out of action but the margin surely would've been closer to 10 points than 31.

Bottom line: With a little different timing Tennessee could be carrying a lot better record and a lot more confidence into Saturday's game at No. 2 Alabama. The Vols are aware of this.

"It sucks," senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. "We wish we'd beat Florida without Brantley but what can you do? Once I saw him go down, I was like 'Damn it,' but there's nothing we can do about it now. We only worry about the things we can control, and we can't control any of that. Right now we've just got to go out there and try to beat Alabama."

Junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner agreed that the schedule has not worked to Tennessee's advantage.

"The timing has been real off," he said. "We haven't been getting a lot of breaks. Hopefully, our time will come soon ... in these last six games."

Perhaps the Vols' luck already is changing. They'll face South Carolina Oct. 29, two weeks after tailback Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury. Obviously, the Gamecocks project to be a lot less formidable without their standout ball-carrier.

If there is a benefit to the difficulties Tennessee endured thus far it is that they caused the Vols to close ranks and draw a little closer.

"I would say this has helped bring the team together," Waggner said. "When things like this happen guys encourage other guys to step up for the ones getting hurt. And the ones who are hurt are doing a good job of helping the guys that are replacing them."

Despite awful timing and untimely injuries, Tennessee's morale seems to be OK.

"I think it's pretty good," Waggner said. "All of those (injured) guys are out here while we're working out, so the chemistry is just like it used to be."

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