By Frank Gale
The off week is over and it is now time to resume the fall ritual of SEC football. The Vols hopefully made good use of their extra week of practice to help a defense that has struggled against the better competition this season.
Last week, Vanderbilt used their off week to good advantage by defeating an injury depleted Missouri team, which made one local sports columnist very happy. This week they return home to play SEC East foe Florida that will probably have Jim Butler in a less than cheerful mood by games end.
Following their off week, the Vols will travel to Starkville to play top 20-ranked Mississippi State. The Vols will not only have to deal with the late start (8 p.m. CDT on ESPN2), but also the incessant noise created by the Bulldog faithful and their beloved cowbells.
This will be the first game since Derek Dooley's arrival on Rocky Top where he will not be on the sidelines to urge on his orange clad warriors. Tomorrow, Coach Dooley will be doing his urging from a seat in the coaches box high above the field. He had surgery earlier in the week to repair a hip fracture and will be limited in his mobility, at least for this game.
The good news for the underdog Vols is that MSU, despite bringing an undefeated record (5-0, 2-0 SEC) into the game, really hasn’t played that tough of a schedule. Their opponents have a combined record of 8-19 with only Troy (3-2) above .500. Despite the inferior competition, the unbeaten Bulldogs are ranked No. 19 in the nation.
The Vols (3-2) come into the game having played two teams that were undefeated and ranked in the top ten when they met. To be fair, they have also played two teams that have a combined 1-11 record. So far, the Vols only victory of note was over NC State (4-2), which just upset Florida State last week.
This season’s records aside, the Vols have had their way with MSU in recent years and haven’t lost in Starkville since 1994. The Vols have won the last six meetings by at least a 10-point margin. Of course, that was then and this is now.
Derek Dooley will be looking for his first SEC victory on the road and his first win against a top 20 opponent. The big question tomorrow night — will this team rise to the occasion and finally get those two lingering monkeys off their head coach’s back?
Mississippi State will be the third top 20 team the Vols have faced already this season. Alabama and South Carolina are currently in the top five and are the next two opponents following tomorrow’s game. The Vols are 0-8 in SEC contests played in October the past two years; this would be a perfect time to put a halt to that trend.
Tennessee is 78-39-9 all time in games after an off week. It sure would be great to enter the second half of the schedule with a 4-2 record instead of 3-3. While this will not be that signature victory Coach Dooley is still chasing, a win would sure make his hip feel better and help to lower the temperature a tad on his hot seat. Go Vols!!!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)