Strange as it sounds, the nationally televised butt-kickings at the hands of Cal and Florida may have wounded Tennessee's collective pride enough to snap the Vols out of their early-season lethargy.
"I think sometimes you just have to experience things," head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his Sunday teleconference. "The first two big games we had some bad experiences. We had some (game-changing) plays we allowed people to make."
Tennessee looked like a junior high team against Florida but the Vols have grown up quite a bit since then – emotionally, if not chronologically.
"It's a young team," Fulmer said, "and we're not allowing those things (disastrous plays) to happen any longer."
Tennessee's season may have turned during the open date prior to Game 5 against Georgia. The Vols posted a 21-point victory, looking nearly as potent against the Dawgs as they had looked pathetic against the Gators a few weeks earlier.
Fulmer said his team went back to basics during the open-date week, spending more time than usual working on fundamentals. The coaches preached, and the players paid attention.
"The emphasis has really been there about stopping the run and running the ball better," the head man said. "Not that we didn't emphasize it before but it's been heard a lot better."
Simply put, Tennessee was a bad football team in its first three games. The Vols were an improved football team in their next three games. They appeared more committed, more focused and more determined. Asked if he has seen the players take more ownership of the team since the Florida loss, Fulmer replied in the affirmative.
"I have," he said. "I've seen our guys respond since the open date and, really, before that."
Fulmer thought his team made some progress in early September but kept killing itself with costly mistakes – fumble returns for touchdowns, punt returns for touchdowns, missed tackles and blown coverages. Except for an interception return for touchdown allowed in Game 4 vs. Arkansas State, Tennessee has stopped shooting itself in the foot over the past three games.
"We've stopped making mistakes," Fulmer noted. "Leadership and ownership were two of the words we (coaches) have used and they (players) have bought in to it."
From all appearances, the loss at Florida was a watershed event. When the Gators outscored an utterly inept UT squad 31-0 over the game's final 21 minutes, the Vols lost more than a football game. They lost their confidence and a substantial portion of their fan base. A 6-6 or 5-7 record appeared to be in the offing.
Just as the season appeared headed for disaster, however, the Vols began showing signs of life. They played OK against Arkansas State in Game 4, played exceptional football against Georgia in Game 5, then played just well enough to win a tough road game at Mississippi State in Game 6.
"Their pride was hurt," Fulmer said. "We had a really solid meeting before we played Arkansas State. Everybody understood what needed to be done to get better. Since then we've done those things."