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Tennessee showed it never was back, while Georgia has a long way to go

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Uncertainty for Vols football program? (1:03)

In light of the news that Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd plans to transfer, Paul Finebaum says Volunteers coach Butch Jones is suddenly unpopular following a three-game losing streak. (1:03)

Don’t talk to me about injuries right now.

Don’t bother with the rationale, the justification, the excuses.

Tennessee lost to South Carolina fair and square on Saturday. That 58-yard field goal never had a shot, and the Vols’ late-game magic finally ran out, as they fell 24-21 on the road in Columbia.

To think it wasn’t that long ago that Tennessee finally beat Florida and “Rocky Top” was cranked up to 11. Tennessee was back! The SEC East went through Knoxville again! College Football Playoff, here we come!

Nope. There was not a chance of that. Only a Hail Mary against a mediocre Georgia team kept Tennessee from going 0-for-October.

Honestly, losing in double overtime to Texas A&M was OK. Although being dominated at home by Alabama was a tough pill to swallow, it wasn’t altogether unexpected. The Vols were so banged up, remember?

But the bye week was supposed to help. The second half of the schedule was supposed to be a cakewalk. Florida was supposed to lose again, and the East would be right there for the taking.

Then South Carolina happened. Then the Vols found a way to lose to an unranked, sub-.500, two-touchdown underdog, with an extra week to prepare. There’s no excuse for that -- not injuries, not anything.

The Vols once again started slow, committed too many unforced errors and turned the ball over just enough. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs continued the story of his career, one of incredible intangibles but middling accuracy. The veteran looked lost, while South Carolina was led to a win by a true freshman, Jake Bentley, who should be finishing his senior year of high school right now.

Vols running back Alvin Kamara was out, and Jalen Hurd was reportedly dealing with an injury, but the running game wasn't the problem for Tennessee against South Carolina. The problem was that Jauan Jennings was the only receiver capable of making plays, and if not for a special-teams touchdown from Evan Berry, the loss would have looked much worse.

These aren't new problems. They date back to Week 1 against Appalachian State. Tennessee is tied for the SEC lead in turnovers (20) and ranks ninth in third-down and 12th in fourth-down conversions. Coupled with the fifth-most penalties in the conference, this is one sloppy football team. Yes, that goes back to coaching. When you're giving up nearly twice as many points as you're scoring in the first halves of games, something is wrong.

Saturday's loss was the end of the Vols' high-wire act. They fell to 2-3 in conference play and out of both the AP and Coaches Poll top 25s.

The first College Football Playoff rankings of the season, which will be released Tuesday, were supposed to be a big step in Tennessee's return to national prominence, but instead, the team's likely absence will be a reminder of how much further coach Butch Jones and the program have to go.

Maybe the Vols will get healthy, and maybe they'll finish strong against Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. But after three straight losses, will it matter?

The damage is done. The losing streak against Florida ended, but Tennessee's long wait to return to national prominence continues.

SEC least

It’s a good thing they don’t call it the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” anymore because Saturday's showing by Florida and Georgia was hardly entertaining.

The Gators were the better team, of course, but they didn’t inspire long-ranging confidence, with Luke Del Rio passing for a paltry 131 yards and a touchdown in a 24-10 win. Their supposedly well-rounded running game needed 48 carries to reach 100 yards, and the offensive line allowed three sacks. The defense was brilliant, but it’s not as if the Bulldogs were worthy adversaries.

It has to pain Georgia fans to see what the Bulldogs have become. Losing to Vanderbilt at home was bad enough, but to lay an egg against your rival and produce just one touchdown was even worse. Whether it’s coach Kirby Smart or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, someone needs to answer some tough questions this week.

Let’s start with the obvious: What’s up with running back Nick Chubb? He’s Georgia's best player, yet he touched the football only 10 times against Florida. A week after they inexplicably used him as a lead blocker on a pivotal fourth-and-1 against Vanderbilt, you’d think the Bulldogs staff would have learned its lesson.

Jacob Eason isn’t the problem. The freshman quarterback needs help, and whether it’s his receivers or his line, he isn't getting it. He was hurried 16 times by Florida. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about a hand in his face 48 percent of the times he dropped back to pass. Tom Brady would struggle against that kind of pressure.

Quick hitters

  • Is Auburn the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West? It certainly looks that way after Gus Malzahn’s squad found a way to win a back-and-forth game at Ole Miss. That’s five wins in a row for the Tigers, who have suddenly found an identity on offense, thanks to the brilliant one-two combination of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson at running back.

  • Kudos to Mark Stoops and the Kentucky Wildcats. A couple weeks ago, they were left for dead, and now they’re one win from bowl eligibility. Don’t look now, but they’re within range of winning the SEC East. They flat-out dominated Missouri on Saturday, as Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell rushed for a combined 374 yards.

  • Sometimes we talk about moral victories. Well, what happened this weekend at Mississippi State was a moral defeat, as the Bulldogs needed all four quarters to beat Samford. No, not Stanford. This was an FCS opponent getting paid to hang 41 points and more than 600 yards of offense on Dan Mullen’s defense. After losing the season opener to Sun Belt powerhouse South Alabama, the ugly performances are starting to pile up in Starkvegas.