An interesting transformation is occurring to Tennessee football in the early stages of Josh Heupel's third season.
The Volunteers are becoming normal.
Normal as in ranking 40th nationally in total offense and 57th in scoring offense, and normal as in ranking 38th in total defense and 46th in scoring defense. Coming away empty after a journey into Florida's Swamp can be pretty normal as well.
Being normal is not the worst thing in the world, but it's not a desired objective when memories of last year's exciting 11-2 team that knocked off Alabama, LSU and Clemson and topped the nation in total offense and scoring offense are still very fresh.
"You've got to give yourself a chance early in the football game," Heupel said after Saturday night's 29-16 loss to the Gators. "You've got to play efficiently. You've got to line up and tackle on the other side of the football. You've got to play -- three phases, man -- and we did not play well enough.
"We are capable of playing better. We've got to be better. We've got to go back to work and continue to grow."
Growing pains are what the Vols obviously have experienced as they continue to transition from the Hendon Hooker era to the Joe Milton III era at quarterback and from the Alex Golesh era to the Joey Halzle era as offensive coordinator. Tennessee no longer has a Biletnikoff Award winner (Jalin Hyatt) at receiver, and the Vols no longer possess an NFL top-10 selection (Darnell Wright) as their top offensive tackle.
The most comforting aspect to Tennessee's early backtracking this season is that the Vols have company, with border rivals Alabama and Georgia struggling out of the gate as well. No opponent right now seems too overwhelming for the Vols on their remaining schedule, but what was supposed to be their easiest game turned into a 30-13 wrestling with Austin Peay.
"We'll find out within the team starting tomorrow and really starting tonight on the plane," Milton said Saturday night when asked how he expected the Vols to respond. "When we go back Monday, we've got to execute."
Said receiver Bru McCoy: "I think a loss like this would light a fire under anybody. I don't like the way this feels, and I'm not going to take it lightly."
Tennessee awoke from more than a decade of mediocrity to become the toast of college football last September and October, bolting out to an 8-0 record and to the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Vols are 5-3 since with three double-digit road losses.
Kind of normal, right?
Florida earned its biggest Southeastern Conference win of the Billy Napier era by taking down the Vols, who entered an energized Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with a No. 11 ranking and as touchdown favorites.
Napier has been playfully labeled "Sunbelt Billy" by opposing fan bases after losing as many league games (five) during his SEC debut season as he did in four years in the Sun Belt Conference with Louisiana. He is just 8-8 overall early in his second year in Gainesville, but the former Murray County quarterback has assembled the nation's No. 3 crop of commitments in the 2024 signing cycle and now has a victory that is resonating throughout the Deep South.
"I'm proud of the players," Napier said Saturday night. "You go back a couple of weeks ago, and we went to Utah and didn't play our best football, but there was no finger-pointing. I did not hear one guy in that locker room complain or make an excuse. They took ownership and ultimately responded the right way and have been working ever since.
"This group can get better, and that's the exciting thing to me. There are areas of our team where we still struggle a bit, and we need to keep our humility and sustain this and get ready for the next one, but we're going to celebrate tonight. I can promise you that."
The Vols slipped to No. 23 and the Gators entered at No. 25 in Sunday's latest Associated Press poll.
Tennessee's 10 consecutive losses against Florida in Gainesville span six Vols coaches -- Phillip Fulmer (2005, 2007), Lane Kiffin (2009), Derek Dooley (2011), Butch Jones, (2013, 2015, 2017), Jeremy Pruitt (2019) and Heupel (2021, 2023).
Auburn quarterback Payton Thorne threw two interceptions by the midway mark of the second quarter Saturday night, but the transfer from Michigan State wound up with 282 passing yards, 123 rushing yards and three total touchdowns in the 45-13 shredding of Samford.
Thorne became the first Tigers quarterback to throw for 200 yards and rush for 100 in the same game since Nick Marshall in 2014. No Auburn quarterback has thrown for 300 and rushed for 100 in the same contest, and first-year coach Hugh Freeze was asked if he considered leaving Thorne in a little longer.
"If I would have known that, I would have thought about it," Freeze said. "I had no clue that was the case."
Auburn is 3-0 after winning its 32nd consecutive homecoming game but faces a jump in competition this week with a trip to Texas A&M.
Ole Miss racked up 550 yards and suffered no turnovers in Saturday night's 48-23 whipping of Georgia Tech in Oxford.
The Yellow Jackets had 39 minutes and 17 seconds of possession time compared to just 20:43 for the Rebels.
"That's the most irrelevant stat to winning football," Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said. "That's an old-school way of thinking. You're really just taking longer between snaps standing there, so why does that mean you're going to be better?"
Alabama's 17-3 downing of South Florida in Tampa was one of the ugliest victories of the Nick Saban era, but the Crimson Tide extended their incredible run of not losing consecutive regular-season games since the start of the 2008 season. ... Tennessee redshirt junior Gerald Mincey, who did not play at right tackle against Florida, was cited last Thursday night in Knoxville for simple possession of marijuana. ... Arkansas committed 14 penalties for 125 yards in Saturday night's 38-31 home loss to BYU, which outscored the Razorbacks 17-0 in the final 25 minutes. ... Florida already has more home sellouts in the Napier era (five) than in the four-year Dan Mullen era (four). ... Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea after falling to 2-2 with a 40-37 loss at UNLV: "Disappointed doesn't begin to describe how we feel right now. That was a tough one."
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].