KNOXVILLE — It took just one play for the apathetic pregame vibe that had swirled across the University of Tennessee campus to quickly turn Neyland Stadium into an electric factory. Jaylen Wright's 75-yard touchdown sprint on the game's first snap provided the type of offensive sparkle reminiscent of last season's offensive magic.
But it turned out to be fool's gold as top-ranked Georgia spent nearly every snap that followed bullying and embarrassing the Volunteers on their home field.
It was a microcosm of the season as the Vols bolted to the promise of early success before ultimately fizzling out as their last chance to make this season anything but forgettable disappeared faster than a three-and-out offensive series — which this year's unit has become notorious for producing.
It was sometime during the first half, as the inevitable beatdown that loomed was turning into reality, that one inescapable fact became obvious: Much of the help Tennessee needs to be competitive with an elite opponent such as Georgia will not come from the players on the field, but the potential ones sitting in the recruits' section.
The Vols hosted their largest and most impressive list of high school talent on Saturday, a bona fide sea of stars — dozens of four- and five-star rated players — who as a collective could help close the talent gap.
Depending on the perspective, those teenagers might have either been turned off by watching the host team get manhandled by an elite program, or they might have realized the best opportunity to become an early contributor on a Southeastern Conference roster lies within an emaciated UT lineup.
Name a position on the field and the Vols have a need, particularly along the offensive and defensive fronts, secondary and even for depth at receiver. One specific requirement that any prospective addition will need to fill, a trait as important as any measurable physical stat, is an unquenchable competitiveness.
As much as any obvious deficiency, the lack of fight shown by this year's Tennessee team has been a surprising and glaring weakness.
Perhaps nowhere does the lack of quality depth show up more than in the second half, when fatigue requires more back-ups to see significant game action, and elite teams are able to substitute freely without fear of a dropoff.
For the fourth time this fall, Tennessee struggled to find any level of success in the second half. In their four losses, the Vols have scored a combined nine points in the second half against Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Georgia — all lopsided beatdowns.
"We haven't played good football every Saturday afternoon, and in our losses, that (lack of depth) has shown up," said Vols coach Josh Heupel, who admitted the plan would be to pursue every avenue — high school recruiting, the transfer portal and development of the younger players already in the program — in addressing a roster than needs immediate reinforcements ahead of his fourth season in Knoxville.
"We have to continue to take steps," Heupel continued, adding that he believes last year's success — an 11-2 record with an Orange Bowl win — and the need for immediate impact will be selling points.
"It's a combination of all those things. From the success we've had on the field and what our guys have done going on to the NFL and the development within our program, (recruits) recognize that. That needs to be something that helps us as we continue to recruit at a high level."
With Saturday's loss, what remains of this season — next week's finale at home against Vanderbilt and whatever mid-tier bowl game extends a holiday invitation — needs to transition, in every aspect, to building toward next fall.
That's where the prospect of showcasing Nico Iamaleava — the program's most hyped young quarterback since some guy named Peyton and the first quarterback Heupel recruited, rather than inherited, to run his system at UT — should help entice a number of fellow nationally elite players to want to help speed up the rebuilding process.
"That's a really good football team," Heupel said as he summarized the scope of the talent gap his team faces. "What they've done over the last couple of years is special. (Georgia) added through the portal, but a lot of what they've done is from developing within.
"When we started, obviously year one we were way down on the number of scholarships. We've gotten closer to 85 and trying to develop some young guys from within. We need to do all of those things to continue to climb the ranks in this league. We've still got a ways to go."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].