The thousands of fans decked out in orange and white that peppered Neyland Stadium with more than 100 decibels of ear-shattering noise slowly filed out in silence Saturday.
Plenty has been rehashed about the Vols’ squandered lead, what the team could have done differently, the plays that could have changed everything and the decisions that culminated in a multiple overtime defeat.
Looking back is always easy. But the real question lies in how to move forward.
“Obviously we were hurting,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “Tough loss, which was a given, but just remember this feeling because we never want to have it again.”
Gone is Tennessee’s national ranking and opportunity for a marquee non-conference win. Ahead of the Vols is a clean SEC slate with nearly every tangible goal in front of them.
In-between the two is a tune-up game at home against FCS Western Carolina and a fair inquiry into how Team 119 will handle going from the lowest of lows emotionally to playing a team that isn’t even in the FBS right after. How much will the team be able to motivate itself after falling in such dramatic fashion?
According to cornerback Cameron Sutton, there will be no Oklahoma hangover Saturday night.
“Not at all,” Sutton said. “It’s another opportunity to show people what Tennessee football is all about, regardless of the school we’re playing, regardless of the situation. We have a long season ahead of us. We’ll go one game at a time one week at a time. We’re playing every game like it’s our last one.”
Butch Jones has been a part of teams that both adjust and come out firing and teams that struggle mightily after emotional games. In his experience, it’s the team’s level of leadership that usually dictates how it responds the following week.
"You can never let your previous opponent beat you twice, and that is the maturity of a football team, the leadership of a football team,” Jones said. “We have to learn and continue to move on. Each football team is different. I have been around ones that when they had an emotional loss, they would bounce back and play their best game. I have been around teams that struggled, and vice versa. This is where you have to rely on the competitive structure of your program and the character of your program.”
With veterans who say all the right things like Dobbs and Sutton, it’s not hard to imagine Tennessee bouncing back admirably after having the life sucked
out of the locker room by a resilient Oklahoma squad.
That at least seems to be the feel from Jones after he checked the pulse of his squad following Saturday night. As a nationally televised game against Florida to start the SEC schedule looms in the near distance, Tennessee must first focus on knocking out the team that sits in front of the Gators without looking into the future or dwelling on the past.
“I know our kids are ready to get back at it," Jones said. "I have spoken with most of them and they are eager and ready to go. They are ready to put all eyes on Western Carolina. Western Carolina is the most important game because it is the next game. That is kind of the program philosophy. That is why I don't ever believe in putting too much stock in one particular game. They all count as one."