Could it happen? Yes, especially if the Vols stumble out of the gate the way they did in their first three games. Consider:
- A 45-yard fumble return by Cal on the fifth play of the opener put Tennessee behind 7-0 less than two minutes into the 2007 season. The Vols also trailed 14-7 and 21-14 en route to a 31-21 halftime deficit and an eventual 45-31 loss.
- Game 2 saw Southern Miss take the opening kickoff and march to a field goal that produced a 3-0 lead less than three minutes into the first quarter. The Golden Eagles also led 10-7, 13-7 and 16-10. Tennessee grabbed the lead for good at 17-16 just 41 seconds shy of halftime and went on to win 39-19.
- Florida returned a punt 83 yards on the fourth play of Game 3, giving the Gators a 7-0 lead with 13:03 left in the initial period. It was 14-3 at the end of the quarter and 28-6 late in the first half. Final score: Florida 59, Tennessee 20.
A bad start can take a crowd out of the game and take a team out of its game plan. For instance, Tennessee's coaches preached offensive balance all preseason but this strategy was scrapped in Games 1 and 3 because of early deficits. The Vols wound up throwing 47 passes against Cal and 46 against Florida.
"When you're playing from behind you're playing catch-up the whole game," senior quarterback Erik Ainge said. "It's hard to justify running the ball on first and second down when the clock's running. You almost have to get in the two-minute drill to even attempt that. When you're playing catch-up it obviously changes your whole game plan."
When a team is down 14 points – or even seven – the potential quick-fix of a long pass is much more appealing than a series of three- and four-yard runs. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe admits that it's difficult to stick with a ball-control game plan when the scoreboard reads in the opposing team's favor.
"It makes it tougher," he said. "You're trying to evaluate how many possessions you've got and how many points you need … what it's going to take to win. You try not to let that bother you."
But it does. And the greater the deficit, the greater the panic.
"When you get down even 14, you've got to realize that's a normal score and try to stay within your game plan," Cutcliffe said. "Usually, if you don't it bites you."
Down 28-6 last Saturday at Florida, Tennessee managed to keep its poise. The Vols scored a touchdown just before halftime and another late in the third quarter. Having whittled the deficit to 28-20, they were within a TD and a two-point conversion of tying the score.
Two disastrous possessions killed Tennessee's comeback hopes at this point, however. A fumbled handoff was returned for a touchdown by Florida, then a three-and-out set up another Gator score. Suddenly, the deficit was 42-20 and the rout was on.
Cutcliffe said the Vols stuck with their game plan "for the most part, then in the third quarter we bit ourselves. We turned the ball over for a touchdown, then we don't convert a third down and we go three-and-out. We got OURSELVES behind."
Double-digit deficits are particularly difficult for offensive linemen. When a team shifts into all-out passing mode to try and catch up quickly the defense can pin its ears back and blitz on every snap. Tennessee's offensive line coach is acutely aware of this.
"You don't want to panic early," Greg Adkins said. "But, as the game progresses and you're down a couple of scores or whatever, you're going to try and gain as much yardage as you can per play, and the pass happens to be the easiest way."
Naturally, Tennessee's players would like to start quickly against Arkansas State. If they don't, however, they insist they won't panic. They've grown accustomed to having to play from behind.
"We don't kill teams," Ainge said. "As good as we are and the caliber of teams we play, we don't go beat people by 40 points here and 40 points there. We're used to playing from behind or just ahead.
"Last year South Carolina, Alabama, Air Force, Florida, LSU and Kentucky were close games. Really, every game except Marshall, Memphis, Arkansas and Vandy we could just as easily have won than lost or lost as easily as we won. We're used to playing like that."
Especially this season.