By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Tennessee is counting on the presence of a healthy Tyler Bray to assure the Volunteers don't stage a repeat of last year's midseason slump.
Of course, it would help if the Vols knew which Bray they're getting.
Is he the quarterback who crumbled in the fourth quarter of a 37-20 loss to Florida two weeks ago? Or the guy who has otherwise played as well as anyone could have reasonably expected?
The Vols believe his 401-yard, four-touchdown performance in a 47-26 victory over Akron last week suggests he's put his Florida fade behind him. Bray went 6-of-7 for 101 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Tennessee broke open a close game.
"We can practice that all day, but once you do it in a game, everyone gets confident," Bray said. "Hopefully we can do it again."
The Vols haven't done it enough.
Bray is tied for the NCAA lead with 12 touchdown passes this season. As a junior, Bray already has 47 career touchdown passes to rank fourth on Tennessee's all-time list.
Yet the Vols are just 4-4 in his eight Southeastern Conference starts, which has caused scrutiny of everything from his desire to his demeanor.
"I think his level of `want-to,' wanting to win and wanting to be a good quarterback is a lot greater than what might be the perception of many," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. "Hey, we all bring things on ourselves. His goal is to just work his way out of that and prove to people, not only is he a really good quarterback, but how important it is to be good and how important it is to help this team win."
Bray has plenty of chances to make that point. Tennessee's game Saturday at No. 5 Georgia is the first of four straight meetings with ranked opponents. The Vols later travel to No. 21 Mississippi State, host No. 1 Alabama and visit No. 6 South Carolina.
Tennessee went winless in a similar stretch last year against Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. After Bray fractured his right thumb late in a 20-12 loss to Georgia, Matt Simms and Justin Worley went a combined 24-of-63 with five interceptions and no touchdown passes in losses to LSU, Alabama and South Carolina. Tennessee didn't exceed seven points in any of those games.
The Vols also played those games without star receiver Justin Hunter, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last September. The Vols believe having Bray and Hunter this year can help them avoid another losing streak.
"I feel that can be a big difference," Tennessee tailback Rajion Neal said. "Those were two big pieces of the puzzle that we didn't have last year."
Bray can only be a difference maker if he avoids the breakdowns that cost him against Florida.
Florida scored the game's final 24 points as Bray and the Vols fell apart. Bray's frustration was apparent as he ended the game with seven straight incompletions.
"I wouldn't say we got scared, but we just disappeared," Bray said. "We weren't ourselves."
Bray showed progress in that regard last week. He didn't get down on himself after throwing an early interception that was returned for a touchdown. Nor did he panic when the game was tied at halftime.
"There were a lot of conversations about how you manage what goes wrong in a game and how your body language and your thoughts and your words can affect other people, especially guys on the team," Dooley said. "He made some bad throws early, bad decisions early, and he was frustrated (and) wanting to get something to happen. But he really kept a nice calm about him, worked his way through the game and got better and better and better as the game went on. That was a good step for Tyler."
Bray always has possessed supreme faith in his arm. Earlier this season, Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson called Bray a "daredevil" for his tendency to take chances. Georgia's players have noticed that as well.
"A lot of quarterbacks are afraid to take that risk," Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. "With that risk, there's high reward and there's also a chance for getting the ball picked off. When you have the guys around him that he has, the risk isn't as high and the reward is (still) high. He has the arm to fit it into those tight spaces and also throw the ball deep. He's an NFL quarterback."
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray also has pro potential and is off to an even better start than Bray. Murray and Bray have talked or exchanged text messages just about every week since participating this summer in the Manning Passing Academy.
They contacted each other Monday about their upcoming matchup.
"We were talking about trying to put on a show, how we kind of missed some throws last year," Bray said.
Bray wants to make sure it's a show worth watching all the way to the end.
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Ga., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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