Tennessee defensive lineman Daniel McCullers (98) walks off the field after the Vols' 31-17 loss to Florida in Gainesville, Fla., on Saturday. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Butch Jones believes his football program is slowly moving forward, even though the results suggest the Volunteers remain stuck in neutral.
The Vols wasted an opportunity to end a couple of losing streaks Saturday by falling 31-17 to No. 20 Florida and failing to capitalize after Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a broken right leg in the first quarter. Tennessee has lost its past nine games with Florida and its last 18 games against ranked opponents.
Tennessee's latest loss creates more questions about the Vols' quarterback situation, but Jones sees hope in the way UT continued competing after self-destructing in a turnover-laden first half.
"There is no panic," Jones said. "Where we sit, we're 2-2. There are a lot of football teams that would like to be 2-2 right now. We have to keep things in perspective as we continue to build this football program and learn what it takes to play winning football. But I thought we took some small steps."
The next step may be settling on a quarterback.
Jones handed the starting job to redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman after determining he had the best week of practice. Peterman went 4-for-11 for 5 yards with two interceptions and a fumble before getting replaced late in the second quarter by Justin Worley, who had started Tennessee's first three games. Jones said Peterman also hurt his hand during the game. Worley was 10-of-23 for 149 yards with a touchdown pass and two interceptions.
Jones wouldn't commit to a starter for next week's game against South Alabama. Tennessee's other two scholarship quarterbacks are freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs, who haven't played yet.
Worley "was just a little more poised," Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. "He's been there. That was the first time Nate has played really. He just happened to get thrown into an SEC rivalry. You can't really blame him."
The quarterback question isn't the only problem facing Tennessee. An offensive line billed as one of the nation's best before the season struggled against Florida, with the Vols gaining less than 3 yards per carry. That line needs to be dominant because the Vols lack proven skill-position performers.
The Vols also aren't playing anything close to the mistake-free football that helped them earlier in the season. After totaling three turnovers in their first three games, the Vols threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles Saturday.
"To beat a good football team at (their) home, first and foremost you can't turn the football over," Jones said. "Way too many turnovers. The first half, I thought they dominated the line of scrimmage with their defensive front."
Yet Jones remains optimistic. After delivering a wretched first-half performance in which it had almost as many turnovers (4) as passing yards (5), Tennessee regrouped in the second half rather than falling apart.
Jones believes that represented a step forward, even as the Vols moved backward in the Southeastern Conference standings. The pain he saw in his players' eyes after the game backed up his opinion.
"I'm starting to see a change, where the more you invest, the more it hurts (to lose)," Jones said. "I'm starting to see that. That's why I'm disappointed, but I'm optimistic. I'm encouraged. We have to keep moving forward. I start to see it hurting (them) more. And it should hurt."
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