KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones is facing some of the toughest criticism he's encountered in his five-year tenure after losing a Southeastern Conference opener that turned into a showcase for second guessing.
The grumbles that started with Tennessee's late-season fade last year have grown louder following a 26-20 setback at No. 20 Florida that was decided on a 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired . Shortly after the game ended, disgruntled fans were lighting up social media and calling local sports talk radio blasting Tennessee's red-zone play calling and its defensive alignment on the final play.
"The sense of urgency, it starts with me," Jones said. "It starts with our coaching staff. It starts with our leaders. I'm responsible and I can promise you we'll get to it. We'll get to work and work to make the corrections."
The Volunteers (2-1, 0-1 SEC) must regroup — and quickly.
After Massachusetts (0-4) comes to Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Tennessee has a demanding four-game run in which it hosts No. 11 Georgia (3-0, 0-0) and South Carolina (2-1, 1-1) before visiting No. 1 Alabama (3-0, 0-0) and Kentucky (3-0, 1-0).
Jones said he's "extremely optimistic" in Tennessee's ability to bounce back but acknowledged the entire team was angry about the way the Florida game turned out.
"Now it's what you make of it," Jones said. "How do you become better because of this?"
Tennessee ended the 2015 season with six straight victories and raced to a 5-0 start last year for an 11-game winning streak, but the Vols have gone just 6-5 in the 11 games since.
Some of Tennessee's problems have been going on for some time.
The Florida game continued Tennessee's pattern of slow starts, though it also showed the resilience the Vols have established under Jones. Tennessee has won five games it trailed by double digits over the last two seasons, and it erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to tie Florida before the Gators responded.
Tennessee's defensive breakdowns also have been a common thread lately. After playing well for most of Saturday's game, Tennessee yielded two touchdowns in the final 5 ½ minutes to a Florida offense that hadn't reached the end zone all season. That defense will play the rest of the season without injured linebackers Cortez McDowell and Darrin Kirkland Jr. and also is missing injured safety Todd Kelly Jr., who is out indefinitely.
The worst mistake came on the game's final play. With the score tied 20-all and nine seconds remaining, Tennessee got into a nickel formation. Tyrie Cleveland outran the Vols' secondary and caught a 63-yard touchdown pass from Feleipe Franks as time expired.
"We knew what they were going to do," Jones said. "They were going to try to get the ball in the middle of the field, throw a dig route, call a timeout and try to hit a game-winning field goal. ... Where the play broke down is we let the quarterback escape the pocket."
The loss to Florida exposed other issues Tennessee must fix.
Tennessee scored a total of three points out of three trips inside Florida's 20-yard line. Tennessee's John Kelly rushed for 141 yards and averaged 7.4 yards per carry, yet the Vols didn't run the ball in any of their seven snaps from inside Florida's 10. In those seven passes from inside the 10, Quinten Dormady was 1 of 7 for minus-1 yard with an interception.
That included an instance in which Tennessee had first-and-goal from the 1 and threw an incompletion instead of handing off to Kelly. Jones said Tennessee called a running play in that instance, but Dormady checked off to a pass in the end zone. When a Florida unsportsmanlike conduct penalty brought Tennessee even closer to the goal line, Dormady briefly left the game with an injury, and Tennessee committed a false start while backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano lined up in shotgun formation.
"We didn't think it was fair for Jarrett to have to go into the game and do an underneath-center snap when he didn't have time to practice the underneath-center snap," Jones said. "There's a lot of nuances that occurred through the course of those two plays. But make no mistake about it. We get the football down there, we need to run the football and we need to score touchdowns."
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