"It's not an excuse, but I've said it before," Johnson said. "We have a very small margin of error, and we have to be very good in just about everything we do. I don't think we make more mental errors, probably less than most teams, but we can't afford as many as we're making."
Vanderbilt made plenty of mistakes in its 14-13 loss to Kentucky, the fourth game this season a second-half lead transformed into a loss. This week, it was on special teams, when a blocked punt, missed field goal, missed extra point and another short punt all contributed to a loss that never should have happened.
"People make mistakes all over the country," Johnson said. "We're not the only team that makes mistakes. Other teams can overcome them. We look at film every week, and there are people (against other teams) running wide-open sometimes, and it seems like every time we let one of them run wide-open, that ball is to them like a magnet. Other teams, they sack the guy before he gets a chance to throw it."
Johnson pointed out Vanderbilt made some plays on the defensive side of the ball. The Dores stuffed Kentucky on downs at the 10-yard line following a blocked punt to protect a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, held Kentucky scoreless following a VU fumble early and prevented the Cats from scoring after an 11-yard punt. But when the game was truly on the line, Kentucky found the winning formula and scored a touchdown with under two minutes remaining.
"It's just a product of not being confident enough right now," Johnson said. "And I think fatigue has a little bit to do with it. If it's not totally physical fatigue, maybe mental fatigue. I think confidence is the main thing."
Senior wide receiver Chris Young agrees confidence is lacking, but he lays it at the feet of the players, not the third-year coaching staff.
"I feel like we could have overcome a lot more, but I don't feel like the players had it in their minds that we were going to win regardless of what happened or what was called," said Young, who scored his first touchdown of the season Saturday. "They didn't have that in their mind, and that is a big letdown for me because I did have that in my mind."
With Tennessee coming to town for the season finale, the Commodores know Vanderbilt Stadium will not be friendly to the black and gold on Saturday. But that can have a bonding effect on the Dores.
"It takes all the pressure off you and puts it on them," Young said. "They have to beat you. If we prepare well and it is Us-Against-The-World, and we win? Man, there is no better feeling in the world than an Us-Against-The-World victory."
For 15 Vanderbilt seniors, there is no better way to go out than record the first win against the hated Vols since 1982.
"I don't know if it would erase all the frustration (of this season), but it would definitely help this program," said senior Justin Geisinger. "It would put a lot of confidence into the guys coming back. It would be great for recruiting and everything else."
If Vanderbilt is to pull off the upset, it may have to do it without defensive stalwart Moses Osemwegie, who was "very questionable" with an ankle injury, according to Johnson.
Tennessee, of course, will be without freshman quarterbacks Eric Ainge and Brent Schaeffer, leaving the offense in the hands of shaky junior Rick Clausen. Which could mean a heavy dose of running when the Vols have the ball.
"That is a real worry on our part," said Johnson, whose team is 11th in the SEC in run defense. "It's a situation where you can put a whole bunch of guys up there and they're going to have a whole bunch to block you. It's very simple to say that you're going to bring some more people up there, but it is a whole lot harder to execute than people think."
Bill Trocchi is the online editor for Athlon Sports.