Tennessee Vols show inconsistency will be most consistent part of season, and that's not all their fault

Adam Sparks
Knoxville News Sentinel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tennessee's accustomed to losing to Florida, and by a lot.

The Vols have lost to the Gators by double-digits four straight seasons.

Josh Heupel is not accustomed to losing to anyone by a lot.

UT’s 38-14 defeat to Florida Saturday night marked the first time Heupel suffered a regular-season loss by more than one score in his head coaching career. In three seasons at Central Florida, Heupel lost six regular-season games, all by eight points or fewer.

Whichever trend wins out will determine if the Vols sink or swim from here after treading water in The Swamp.

“We will not fall apart this year. And you can quote me on that,” senior cornerback Alontae Taylor said.

It’s an admirable statement from a veteran player. But the Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) don’t know where this season will go. How could they? It seems each game presents a new surprise.

TOPPMEYER:Tennessee exits Swamp with hope. Florida has something more valuable

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There's little certainty to UT so far

Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel walks off the field after losing to Florida 38-14 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

UT’s defense didn’t force a turnover in the first two games even though coaches and players said it was emphasized in practice. Then the Vols intercepted four passes against Tennessee Tech and forced a pivotal fumble against the Gators.

Surprise.

In the first three games, quarterbacks overthrew deep passes. Heupel and players said that didn’t happen in practice. It only occurred in games.

Surprise.

Against Florida, Jimmy Calloway dropped a critical pass on fourth down that might’ve given the Vols a chance. He had room to run, and a touchdown would’ve cut Florida’s lead to 24-21 in the third quarter.

Other UT receivers also dropped passes. For once, the quarterback wasn’t the biggest problem in the passing game, as Hendon Hooker played well in his second start.

But Heupel was just as surprised by the dropped passes as he was the misfired passes or lack of takeaways earlier in the season.

“I didn’t anticipate (dropped passes) tonight based on what we’ve seen in practice,” Heupel said. 

Surprise.

Either the Vols are a much better practice team or there’s more to their inconsistency. Make no mistake, it’s the latter.

Vols must get better, but how far can they go in 2021?

Heupel and his coaching staff are new. Their schemes are new, and the offense especially is as far from last season’s system as it can be. And the roster is re-tooled after a mass exodus of players in the transfer portal. 

Now, none of that is new information. But it points to the reasons for UT’s up-and-down play. There is instability on this team, and there’s no telling if it will steady by season’s end.

Two quarterbacks have played in all four games, and Hooker left with an injury against Florida. Running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small have played together for less than two games, and Small suffered another injury against the Gators.

The offensive line is in makeshift mode, at best, only one game into the SEC schedule. Center Cooper Mays had to struggle through an ankle injury just to keep the offensive line intact. He also left the game.

Heupel and his staff will answer for the level of progress UT makes this season, but they were handicapped in some ways that'll be difficult to overcome. That shows in each incomplete performances, and it was glaring against the Gators (3-1, 1-1).

Circumstances of the offseason left the Vols with a limited number of dependable, experienced players. So inconsistent play has become the most consistent part of this team.

That means the Vols — if they play their worst so far — will lose to Missouri, South Carolina and Ole Miss in the next three weeks. Or the Vols — if their best portions of the Florida game — will win a couple of those games.

UT heads into an October of unknowns, and it knows that.

Taylor’s guarantee that the Vols “will not fall apart” gained attention. But before that, he said something more telling.

UT played well at times against Florida and poorly at others. When asked which performance accurately depicts the Vols, Taylor said “both.”

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.