KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee keeps putting itself in early holes and digging its way out.
The 11th-ranked Volunteers have trailed by double-digit margins in three of their four games this season, yet they remain undefeated. The trend continued Saturday when they erased a 21-point deficit to beat Florida 38-28 despite missing three of their top four defensive players. Florida, which had been ranked 19th, slipped to 23rd in the latest Top 25.
Their uncanny ability to finish has the Vols off to their fastest start since 2003.
“I feel like we play better when we’re down,” defensive end Derek Barnett said. “That’s something we’ve got to get corrected.”
Indeed, Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) can’t afford to continue falling behind as its schedule gets tougher. The Vols visit No. 25 Georgia and No. 9 Texas A&M and host No. 1 Alabama in the next three weeks.
But their response to adversity shows a resiliency that was missing this time last year, when Tennessee got off to a 3-4 start. The Vols have won 10 straight games since.
This latest victory arguably was the most impressive of the streak. After falling behind 21-0, Tennessee scored 38 straight points. Facing the nation’s top-ranked defense, Tennessee scored five touchdowns in a stretch of six second-half series.
Tennessee rallied despite playing without injured cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. The Vols also played the majority of Saturday’s game without linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
“They’re hearing the boos at halftime,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “They could have folded. They could have come in and they could have gotten down on themselves and they didn’t. They responded like you wanted them to respond.”
Tennessee has been outscored 34-10 in the first quarter and 60-44 in the first half. But the Vols are outscoring opponents 87-24 in the second half and overtime.
That’s a marked contrast from last season, when Tennessee led in all four of its losses and was up by at least 13 points in three of them.
Jones believes the team benefited from its season-opening struggles against Appalachian State, when Tennessee trailed 13-3 at halftime before rallying for a 20-13 overtime victory . Tennessee followed that up by erasing a 14-0 deficit in a 45-24 triumph over Virginia Tech .
“I thought that was needed,” Jones said of the Appalachian State experience. “I thought we needed to prove that we could not play our best, force the game to overtime and win the football game. From that point forward, we’ve gained confidence in close games.”
Jones said Tennessee played too emotionally in the first half Saturday and was “living and dying on every single snap.” The Vols showed more poise in the second half.
Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara said he remembered how former Vols Al Wilson and Jamal Lewis told him before the game to “keep the team calm, stay calm” and that the message resonated throughout the day.
“We just had to go out, not get caught up in the moment, not get caught up in all the extra stuff that’s going on, the hype and everything,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “Just go out — it’s simple — and execute as we do in practice.
“Football’s a simple game. You can make it a lot more complicated than it really is.”
In the first half of games this season, Dobbs is completing just 50.8 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions, and he’s averaging 3 yards per carry. After halftime, Dobbs is completing 65.2 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and two interceptions, and he’s averaging 5.5 yards per rush.
Dobbs’ production can vary wildly over the course of the game, but his attitude stays the same in any situation.
“At the quarterback position … you don’t want the ebbs and flows and the peaks and the valleys,” Jones said. “You want someone who is very consistent in their approach. That’s Joshua Dobbs. He’s very consistent in his approach. He’s very calm. He’s very collected. Our team feeds off of that.”
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org