The words “heartbreak” and “Tennessee” have been used together in the same sentence this year more than any hokey country song.
Three times Tennessee has built a lead of 13 or more points on an opponent in 2015, and three times the Vols have seen it dissipate into the abyss as teams make second half adjustments and rally for victories.
What went wrong has been hashed and rehashed. The defensive collapses late in the game. The inability to throw the ball efficiently down the field. The epic squandering of games that should be won.
Those topics will be discussed in pool halls and office parties long after the 2015 season is put to rest. But there are still eight games left on Tennessee’s schedule, and it sits at a perplexing fork in the road. Does the team give in to the negative vibes plaguing it currently, or can Team 119 rally much like it did last season to make this year a meaningful one despite a 2-3 start?
“Our fortitude's being tested,” head coach Butch Jones said after Saturday’s 24-20 loss to Arkansas. “All you can do is keep working and work your way through it. I don't know. The opportunities are there. We just have to go make them. They've made them before and we are going to have many more opportunities in moving forward."
The resilience of a team that has epically blown three double-digit leads in five games is undoubtedly cracked. The offense, which has put up staggering numbers on the ground, is equally as unproductive in the air. The Vols’ passing game has mustered just 732 total yards and seven touchdowns in five games, and the running game was finally stifled for the first time against an Arkansas team that held the Vols to just four second half yards.
“We just talk about staying the course. Of course there’s a little bit of frustration, but we use that and turn it into motivation to get going,“ running back Alvin Kamara said. “We’re confident. We just have to get a few things going up front. As far as receivers, running backs, we just all have to be on the same page."
On defense, Tennessee’s bend-but-don’t-break approach surrendered 494 yards but just 24 points against Arkansas one week after allowing Florida to convert 5-of-5 fourth down tries in a come-from-behind 28-27 win. The Vols gave up backbreaking touchdown drives to the Gators, Oklahoma and Arkansas that put the game out of reach, and seniors like safety Brian Randolph have taken the torch of responsibility as the team tries to regroup and rebound before Georgia comes to town Saturday.
“I’m not worried about my team,” Randolph said. “We have great character. It’s my job to keep us together — no negative thoughts, no pointing the finger, but for the most part I believe we’re going to come back Monday and just have a great practice.”
Josh Dobbs and Evan Berry echoed those sentiments, yet it’s hard not to ponder just how easy it is to “snap and clear” from three debilitating losses that, in most people’s eyes, should have been wins.
“It is definitely frustrating,” Randolph said. “I know it’s frustrating for the fans, but we just have got to learn how to finish, finish out the game, and keep jumping on them when they are down.”
Power 5 teams are 157-5 after building at least a 13 point lead in a game. Tennessee owns three of those five losses. At some point, the Vols have to learn how to close. To do that, Jones believes they have to keep plugging away.
"How you get over the hump is you keep working and you win one of these games,” he said. “That's the only way you can do it. It's resiliency. Again, we're all being tested. And then how do we keep them together?”
That answer isn’t as easy as pinpointing how the Vols are losing on the field. And with a brutal two-game stretch of Georgia and Alabama looming in the distance, it may be the most important of all.