KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Through a scintillating first five weeks of the season, No. 9 Tennessee has walked a precarious tightrope.
The Volunteers — 5-0 for the first time since 1998 — have rallied from double-digit deficits four times already in 2016. The emotional rollercoaster includes an overtime fumble-recovery touchdown, a raucous rally in the “Battle at Bristol,” boat-racing Florida after halftime and stunning Georgia on Saturday’s Hail Mary at the horn.
After all the good fortune, some have wondered if Team120 is a team of destiny.
“It gives you confidence (on the comebacks), but it also raises the question of: If we can do it when we’re down 14 points, why can’t we just do it from the beginning of the game,” quarterback Josh Dobbs said.
“(A better start) might change the whole complexion of the game. That’s what we’re trying to get across. We understand that we need to come out stronger in the first half, not make those uncharacteristic mistake and put ourselves in those deficits that we have to fight out of. We want to come out and execute from the beginning of the game and play a full 60-minute game.”
Ironically, Tennessee coach Butch Jones hasn’t had any luck pinpointing the cause of Tennessee’s slow starts. He’s changed the practice schedule and solicited sports physiologists. Nothing has worked. But it hasn’t mattered. Yet.
The Volunteers have been outscored 41-10 in the first quarter this season, and sophomore defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie attributed the early deficits to the team’s role reversal.
Last season, Tennessee started fast and fluttered at the finish. The reverse is in order in 2016.
“We’re the hunted team now,” McKenzie said.
“Last year, we would come out swinging because we were trying to get after everybody we played being that kind of underdog. Now, everybody wants to play us and wants to give us their best shot. It’s just transitioning for how we prepare for teams … knowing they’re going to give us their all.”
McKenzie added, “I promise you we want to be beating teams from start to finish.”