The cliché is true: Before you can beat the opponent you have to stop beating yourself. The 2008 Vols continue beating themselves with mental mistakes, special-teams blunders, costly penalties and an alarming level of ineptitude in the Red Zone. Until they stop doing these things, they will not stop losing.
"It seems like we've got to do things the hard way sometimes," a clearly annoyed head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "So everything we do, we should learn from it. Hopefully, we'll go back and be better from it."
Essentially, Tennessee gave a clinic Saturday on how to lose a football game. The Vols committed a rash of mental mistakes. They allowed a 78-yard punt return that produced a touchdown and a 52-yard kickoff return that set up another touchdown. They lost 95 yards to penalties and twice advanced to the Florida 1-yard line in the second quarter without scoring.
The 2007 Vols made a lot of mistakes en route to a rocky start but that was a young team that improved significantly from Game 1 to Game 12. The 2008 Vols are making mistakes with veteran players who appeared just as mistake-prone in Game 3 as they were in Game 1.
"Last year's football team was one of those teams that drove you nuts but you got better and better," Fulmer noted. "That's the essence of coaching; we responded and got better and we won and we played for the (league) championship in Atlanta."
Although Tennessee still could reach the 2008 SEC Championship Game, that is the ultimate pipe dream at this point.
"We won't give up," Fulmer vowed. "We've got a chance to be there yet. It's just a little harder road."
What is the basis of the head man's optimism?
"There are some character kids in that locker room," he said. "There's some coaches that have been through a lot of wars. They'll fight back."
Still, Fulmer isn't kidding himself. He sees the shortcomings this Tennessee team has. He sees a road ahead that features imposing tests against a host of SEC teams that are playing far better than the Vols are.
"In this conference there's no gimmes," the coach said. "We'll have to improve and make sure we don't make the mistakes that beat us. Football is a game of mistakes. When you put 22 people on the field and you're battling like that, there's someone winning and losing on every play. You've just got to win a lot more of those than you lose."
Although Tennessee's negatives proved decisive on Saturday, there were some positive developments in the Vol performance against Florida.
"Our defense did a reasonably good job at times," Fulmer noted. "Certainly, there were some good plays by the offense along the way. The kickoff return team was good the last two or three times we returned it.
"We've just got to eliminate the things that beat us – the turnovers and the chunks of yardage in the kicking game. If you're playing The School of The Pacific, they'll beat you if you give 'em enough opportunities. That's what happened at UCLA."
It happened against Florida, as well. And, if it doesn't stop happening soon, this season could get REALLY ugly.