Where do the Vols go From Here?
By Matt Smith
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Although Tennessee failed its first big test of 2012, one bad day doesn’t make a season, nor will it in and of itself dictate Derek Dooley’s future.
The table was set perfectly. It was a picture-perfect late summer evening in Knoxville. ESPN’s College Gameday was in town. Tennessee had dominated its first two opponents. Florida was coming off of a long road trip to Texas A&M. The Vols had the better quarterback and the more talented playmakers. They also had most of the 102,455 fans packed into Neyland Stadium on their side, who would finally see their beloved Volunteers return to relevance nationally while at the same time ending a seven-year skid against the hated Gators.
For about 40 minutes, the script held true to form. Tennessee led 20-13. Tyler Bray was playing like a seasoned veteran. The defense had held the Gators out of the end zone since a touchdown early in the first quarter. Florida head coach Will Muschamp had even shown the ultimate sign of desperation, ordering a failed fake punt on 4th-and-9 in his own territory. Now, with great field position, the Vols were about to bury their nemesis and run away with Derek Dooley’s first signature victory.
Only, Tennessee didn’t score on that drive. Or the next drive. Or any drive for the rest of the evening. At the same time, Florida was yanking the cloth off of Tennessee’s table, running off 24 unanswered points as the Gators walked out of Neyland Stadium victorious for the sixth time in their past seven visits.
Dooley, rarely lacking for words, struggled to pinpoint what exactly had set the Vols off course late in the third quarter.
“They ran a couple of zone reads and just gutted us,” said the third-year head coach. “You know, we just didn't play very well there. We ran out of juice a little bit on the perimeter late in the game.”
With road trips to Georgia and South Carolina and a trip to Alabama all coming over the next six weeks, the home loss likely squelched any hopes the Volunteers had of winning their first SEC East title since 2007. The attention now squarely turns to Dooley’s future, as the embattled head coach’s record at Tennessee dropped to just 13-15, 4-13 in SEC play.
By defeating N.C. State in the season opener, Dooley avoided the 1-2 start that most thought would be the beginning of the end of his tenure in Knoxville. With eight wins seemingly the magic number for Dooley to return in 2013, and three top-10 teams on the schedule before the end of October, the margin for error went from slim to none on Saturday night. Losses to the Bulldogs, Gamecocks and Crimson Tide are acceptable; however, with the loss to Florida, there can’t be anymore slip-ups. Road games at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt must be victories, as does a tricky home date with Missouri.
That’s really all there is to it. There’s really nothing further to dissect in terms of what can or cannot save Dooley’s job. It’s now on Dooley, his staff and the young men who put on the pads and helmets each Saturday to respond to what has become a constant stream of adversity flowing from the banks of Tennessee River.
“You know, the sky's not going to fall tomorrow,” Dooley said. “We're going to have to learn from it. [Florida’s] a good football team and we lost. We've got to make sure we don't make those kinds of mistakes again because we're going to be in a lot of fourth quarter games.”
Dooley is correct on all accounts. The season, nor his Tennessee coaching career, is over. Florida is a very good football team, and yes, Tennessee will be in more close games this season. It won’t be this Saturday against lowly Akron, but it could be next month in Starkville or in November in Nashville. Will the defense again suffer multiple breakdowns leading to touchdowns? Will the offense again gain zero yards in the final 15 minutes? Will Dooley again shun going for the first down on 4th-and-2 at midfield trailing by seven? Those are the questions that will dictate the future of the Tennessee football program over the coming weeks.
"We just have to make plays when it comes down to crunch time,” said Bray after the game. “The big guys have to step up more than we did tonight."
There’s been improvement – the Volunteers hadn’t had a lead over Florida since 2006 prior to Saturday night - but the team hasn’t shown enough yet to prove that it can turn the corner under Dooley. Florida had the less experienced quarterback, the new offensive coordinator and the injured stars, but it was the Vols who looked younger, slower and weaker.
“There was a lot of emotional investment in that game by the fans, by everybody associated with Tennessee,” Dooley said. “It hurt, that game hurts. I think it's a good sign that kind of pain is on us. We felt like we could go toe-to-toe and we did. We screwed it up. They hurt more than I've seen one of our teams hurt after a loss, which they should.”
Although Tennessee failed its first big test of 2012, one bad day doesn’t make a season, nor will it in and of itself dictate Dooley’s future. There are still more questions than there are answers. How the Vols respond to the loss will dictate how their season plays out, beginning in two weeks in Athens. They’ll have to set their own table this time, but still have opportunities to rewrite the script that was temporarily shredded on Saturday night.