Is stage fright UT's problem?

Vol fans are wondering how Tennessee could play so poorly with so much at stake in Saturday's 30-13 loss to Florida. They wondered the same thing after the Vols' loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game last December.

Possible explanation: stage fright. When Tennessee is FAVORED in a big game played on the ''national stage,'' the Vols seem to get tighter than Anna Nicole Smith's slacks.

Check out the performances in their last four ''big games'' ...

• Last December 1, the Vols clearly outplayed Florida at The Swamp and won 34-32. They entered that game as 18-point underdogs, however, and felt no pressure. After all, no one expected them to keep the game close ... let alone win.

• Last December 8, the Big Orange laid an egg in a 31-20 SEC Championship Game loss to LSU. With a Rose Bowl bid and a shot at the national title hanging in the balance, the favored Vols self-destructed. They dropped passes, suffered key fumbles and failed to stop an offense that had lost its No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 tailback earlier in the evening.

• Last Jan. 1, Tennessee annihilated Michigan 45-17 in the Citrus Bowl. Although the Vols were favored, there was no pressure on them, since they already had blown their shot at the national championship. Loose and relaxed, they pulled out all the stops offensively and steamrolled the Wolverines.

• Saturday, the No. 4 Vols faced No. 10 Florida in college football's Game of the Week. A decisive win on national TV could've vaulted UT to No. 2 in the polls and clearly established the Vols as the new bullies of SEC football. With Florida struggling under a new coaching regime, Tennessee was supposed to win handily on its home field. Instead, the Big Orange made the kind of fundamental blunders generally associated with junior high football (12 men on the field penalties, delay of game penalties, fumbled snaps, missed tackles, etc.) and lost by 17.

I'm not suggesting the Vols ''choke'' at crunch time. I'm merely pointing out that their track record suggests they tend to underachieve when they're favored in a pressure-packed game.

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