For one quarter it seemed as if the Vols were in for another Neyland Stadium nail-biter against a top-15 team.
Then, within minutes, the No. 9 Auburn Tigers struck.
With the Vols leading 13-6 heading into the second quarter, Auburn put together a 45-second scoring drive that lasted two plays – a 62-yard run by quarterback Nick Marshall and a 13-yard touchdown by running back Tre Mason.
The next time the Tigers touched the football, defensive back Chris Davis returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, and Auburn never looked back as the Vols fell 55-23 on Saturday.
Both scores were only a glimpse of what the Tigers did as the Vols allowed Auburn to burn them for big play after big play, showing a glaring weakness for UT as whole: team speed.
"I think you all saw the speed differential out there," head coach Butch Jones said. "You see it on film, but when you see it in person, for me, it's a great measuring stick, a tool, of where we need to go with this football program, how we need to recruit, how we need to develop our players. That still doesn't excuse what just occurred."
The majority of the big plays the Vols allowed came from Marshall, who ran for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, four of which went for more than 20 yards.
Combine Marshall's performance with Mason's – 117 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries – and it was apparent that Tennessee's inability to stop the run was exploited.
"They had two explosive runners in the backfield, the quarterback and the running back, so we had to honor both," sophomore safety Brian Randolph said. "The quarterback did a good job of carrying out the space and we just didn't get the job done."
Stopping the run wasn't the only consistent struggle the Vols had throughout the game however, as the special teams unit also suffered from a lack of ability to make plays in the open field.
UT's special teams allowed not only the Davis punt return, but also a 90-yard Corey Grant kickoff return touchdown and numerous other long returns.
Jones was not happy with the failures of the special teams squad given how much the Vols work with the unit in practice.
"Well, obviously it's a return on your investment, but regardless of that, we take great pride in playing special teams and it's unacceptable," Jones said. "A kickoff return to start the second half and everything is about momentum and gaining momentum, that's unacceptable. A punt return for a touchdown, it's unacceptable. It's players getting off blocks and making a play in space."
One of the few bright spots for the Vols was senior running back Rajion Neal who bounced back from an 8-yard performance against Missouri to rack up 124 yards on 20 carries for his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
"I think we just got back to running the ball and back into the style of football that we are used to. Just believing and trusting in the guys up front," Neal said. "That's really all it was this week. Believing in those guys and giving them a chance to move some piles and let the backs get downhill and work a little bit."
The loss extends Tennessee's losing steak to three – albeit all three were against top-10 teams – and the while the program's goal of making it to a bowl game is still alive, Neal said that this one hurts because of how hard the team has worked in recent weeks.
"I feel that we are still mentally tough, but we are also hurting a little bit from these losses," Neal said. "I think that the work that we put in, we feel like we deserve more. It hurts more when you work hard at it, and you have really given what you can to go out and get a win."