KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee Volunteers should start worrying about their chances of bowl eligibility now that their hopes for a Southeastern Conference title are dashed.
At 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the SEC, the Vols are off to their worst start under coach Phillip Fulmer. No team with three conference losses has ever won the tough SEC East, and losses to Florida and Georgia are sure to prevent Tennessee from becoming the first.
"You stay in this business long enough, you will have ups and downs," Fulmer said following Tennessee's 26-14 loss at Georgia on Saturday. "We've won a lot more than we lost. I've been disappointed in every dang one of them that we've lost. I've felt like this. I'm not going to do anything but keep fighting."
It will take more than a fight for the Vols to keep their hopes for a bowl game from slipping away for a second time in four season.
Tennessee's best-looking shot at earning its first SEC win comes this week against Mississippi State (2-4, 1-2), the conference's only other team with a losing record. The Vols should also win their homecoming game against a struggling Wyoming squad.
The Vols must find a way to score some upsets as they host SEC West-leading and second-ranked Alabama and travel to South Carolina and No. 22 Vanderbilt, who is tied with Florida for the SEC East lead.
Tennessee also could stand to improve - a lot.
"Simple fact, we've got to execute better... get ourselves where we keep our focus so we don't beat ourselves," Fulmer said. "That's a few words but a lot to do."
Facing Georgia (5-1, 2-1), the Vols were averaging 146.4 yards rushing per contest but netted only a single yard rushing against the Bulldogs. Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer carried the ball a combined 11 times for 25 yards.
The same Tennessee offensive line which shut down Georgia's defensive front a year ago couldn't get a push this time, and Stephens was sacked twice for a loss of 15 yards. Gerald Jones was also dropped behind the line of scrimmage for minus 8 yards.
Tennessee's defense entered the game ranked fifth in the country in total defense, but was battered by Georgia's balanced offense, which gained 458 yards and spent a whopping 42:04 on the field.
The Vols came up with big stops on many first- and second-down plays, but gave up 10 third- and fourth-down conversions.
Though Tennessee picked off Matthew Stafford twice inside the 20 and safety Eric Berry set Tennessee's career interception return yardage record with a 54-yard return, the secondary looked soft and left Georgia's receivers plenty of room to make plays.
Knowshon Moreno became the first tailback to rush for 100 yards against the Vols with 101 yards on the ground.
Two of Tennessee's four personal foul penalties kept a 3-minute, 97-yard Georgia drive alive, and Stafford hit Mohamed Massaquoi on a 9-yard TD pass to put the Bulldogs up 20-7 with 9 seconds before halftime.
"You get a personal-foul penalty, that's usually a lack of composure," Fulmer said.
The Vols have progressed in one area. Stephens finished 13-for-30 passing for 208 yards - the best passing performance of the season.
He connected on a 60-yard pass to Denarius Moore, which set up one of his two touchdown passes. As a sophomore making his first SEC start, Stephens seemed unfazed by the hostile environment at Sanford Stadium and threw no interceptions.
Fulmer knows what he's facing from a disgruntled Tennessee fan base: "They're going to talk about the staff, and about what kind of backbone we've got."
And it's going to take more than an improved passing game to change that.
"All of us need to do better," Fulmer said. "It's all of our responsibilities: the players, the coaches, the coordinators, the head coach, managers, trainers, equipment guys, whoever."