David Paschall: Volunteers vow 'we won't fall apart' this season

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Sep. 27—Tennessee football in Josh Heupel's first season will not be a repeat of Tennessee football in Jeremy Pruitt's third season.

So sayeth Volunteers senior cornerback Alontae Taylor.

"We won't fall apart," Taylor said Saturday night on a Zoom call after Tennessee's 38-14 loss at Florida. "We're going to get closer as a team. We're going to go back and watch the film, but we're also going to continue to build that bond. We'll handle next week when that comes, but one thing I will say is that we will not fall apart this year.

"You can quote me on that."

Will do. Actually, just did.

Tennessee's stumble in the Swamp did draw an immediate parallel to its first Southeastern Conference loss last season, when the Vols traveled to Georgia and took a 21-17 halftime lead before the Bulldogs scored the final 27 points of a 44-21 runaway. The Vols took a 14-10 lead Saturday night on a 75-yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker to JaVonta Payton at the 11:31 mark of the second quarter, but the Gators then tallied the final 28 points.

After last season's trip to Georgia, the Vols played their worst game of the season in a 34-7 home loss to Kentucky. This year's follow-up is a trip to Missouri, which has a 41-34 loss to an Atlantic Coast Conference school (Boston College) on its schedule, just like Tennessee does (Pittsburgh).

"I honestly think that playing Florida this early was great for the whole team," Payton said. "They had talented defensive backs and talented defensive linemen, and their offense is good all around, so going off that film and getting better off of that is going to totally help us for the rest of the season."

The ultimate gauge to Heupel's success in Knoxville will be closing the gap against annual rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Pruitt went 0-9 in his three years against the trio and would have lost all nine by at least three touchdowns had Tennessee not trimmed a 31-7 deficit to a more cosmetic 31-19 defeat in last year's game against the Gators inside Neyland Stadium.

Heupel is now 0-1 against that threesome, and only time will tell whether Saturday night was a positive first step or more of the same.

"There were plenty of plays out there, as coaches and as players, where we could have closed the gap tonight," Heupel said. "You had a chance for it to be a tie ballgame going into halftime. It's who we are and how we continue to develop as we build this program. It's in recruiting, too.

"We've got to continue to grow, because we're in a race against ourselves."

Auburn's Bo Nix, the only current quarterback in college football with a win over Alabama, was replaced by T.J. Finley during Saturday's 34-24 escape of Georgia State. Finley, who transferred earlier this year from LSU, helped rally the Tigers from a 24-12 deficit, leaving first-year coach Bryan Harsin with a decision to make before this week's trip to — you guessed it — LSU.

The final question in Harsin's Zoom call Saturday regarded his game plan for making and revealing this week's choice.

"I don't have a game plan like that," Harsin said. "That's not how it works, and I don't have to tell anybody what that game plan is. I've played it, and I've coached it. With the quarterback position, you get yourself ready like everybody else.

"Everybody wants to make a big deal out of that, but the storyline is to get better. Auburn football, get better."

Harsin has parted ways with receivers coach Cornelius Williams after four games and replaced him with offensive analyst Eric Kiesau, who was Harsin's offensive coordinator the past two seasons at Boise State.

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Alabama junior receiver Jameson Williams, the transfer from Ohio State, proved in Saturday night's 63-14 trampling of Southern Miss that he can score from any spot on the field.

Williams returned the opening kickoff 100 yards to give the Crimson Tide a 7-0 lead with only 14 seconds having expired, and he added an 81-yard touchdown reception from Bryce Young early in the second quarter and a 83-yard kickoff return for a score early in the fourth.

"My strategy, every time I get the ball, is that I'm trying to go to the crib," Williams said. "No matter what play or what catch, I'm trying to go to the crib."

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Kentucky improved to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in SEC play with Saturday night's 16-10 win at South Carolina, but the Wildcats are on a very unsustainable path. They have committed 11 turnovers this season while collecting just two, with their minus-9 turnover margin and minus-2.25 turnover ratio per game ranking 129th out of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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