KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee can't quite explain the reasons for its lack of emotion in its last game, but the Volunteers understand they must not let it happen again.
The Vols (3-1, 0-1 SEC) showed an uncharacteristic lack of passion last week in a 17-13 victory over winless 27 ½-point underdog Massachusetts. With No. 7 Georgia (4-0, 1-0) heading to Neyland Stadium this week, a repeat performance could prove disastrous.
"We can't go out there and have the same energy we did last Saturday," defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. "It's not going to end well if we do that."
Vols coach Butch Jones called his team's passion and energy level against UMass "very lackluster."
"That's something we will not tolerate," Jones said. "We will not go backward with that. We'll address that situation. You can make a lot of excuses for it, but there are no excuses for a lack of passion and energy."
Tennessee's lack of spirit last week was an odd look for a program that prides itself on resilience.
The Vols have won five games they trailed by double-digit margins since the start of the 2016 season. Each of the last two seasons, a Tennessee defensive player has chased someone down at the end of a 70-plus-yard run to turn a likely touchdown into a touchback .
That tenacity was missing against UMass in an apparent hangover effect from the Vols' heartbreaking 26-20 loss to Florida a week earlier.
"I thought we had a few good practices last week, but we didn't come out ready to play Saturday," defensive end Kyle Phillips said. "That really hurt us and really, really impacted the game. Going into this game, it starts in practice. We have to bring that passion and energy during practice."
The lack of passion against UMass carried over to the fan base. With about 10 minutes left in the game, it appeared that at least one-third of the crowd already had left a game that remained very much in doubt.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart expects a much different Neyland Stadium atmosphere this week with Tennessee seeking to beat the Bulldogs for a third straight year.
"It's loud, loud, loud," Smart said. "They're right on top of you, and they've got two people in every one seat. You know that. It's loud. It's tough."
Georgia is heading into Knoxville as an eight-point favorite, even though none of the last five games in this series has been decided by more than seven points. The point spread reveals how the Bulldogs enter this game on a roll while Tennessee has looked out of sorts.
Tennessee didn't play particularly well against Florida, though the Vols showed their grit by erasing a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The Vols never trailed against UMass but couldn't put away an opponent that seemed overmatched on paper.
"I don't know exactly what the cause was, other than we just need to have more energy from the start," quarterback Quinten Dormady said.
Offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said an energy boost could come from the sideline. Kendrick said it would be "huge" to have more of Tennessee's injured players on the sidelines encouraging them.
Tennessee's already suffered numerous injuries to top players this year, and some of the injured guys weren't on the sidelines for the UMass game. For example, Jones noted that injured wide receiver Jauan Jennings doesn't like being on the sideline while hurt because he's so competitive and eager to play.
Jones quipped that "knowing Jauan, I'd be afraid he'd run out on the field regardless and want to play."
"I think we'll start seeing some of them back on the sidelines," Kendrick said of the injured players. "That's something we need to take care of inside the team, I guess. Obviously senior leaders and just older guys in general out there can kind of show the younger guys what it's supposed to look like and how the sidelines are supposed to look."
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