By Frank Gale
When Tennessee beat North Carolina State back at the end of August, little did the Big Orange Nation realize that they might have just witnessed the high water mark associated with the 2012 campaign. With only No. 1 Alabama tomorrow night and South Carolina next Saturday worthy of qualifying as quality opposition, the chances for a significant win are fading.
The fact that the Vols could sweep the month of November and still end with a winning record will do little to get the fans back on the “Dooley Bandwagon” without a significant win this season.
The sad fact is this team has already squandered several opportunities against top 10 quality teams that should have resulted in victories. It has been a total team effort, with all phases of the team contributing to the 3-3 record that could easily have been unblemished heading into a show down with the Crimson Tide.
Despite their failures, Tennessee is still a dangerous team for the next two SEC opponents because they tend to play up or down to their competition. The Tide, on paper, should have no problem handling this Volunteer team, but the emotional lift of playing the top team in the country, along with the history of this rivalry, could result in an unpredicted result.
The latest loss to a good, but not great, Mississippi State team has sent many of the fans over the edge. Sports talk radio and internet message boards have called for Coach Dooley’s job. Then there is the campus “Rock” that had unflattering remarks about the leader of the Vols painted on it this week. Coupled with his recovery from hip surgery, this has to be some of Derek Dooley’s darkest times since he took the job at UT.
This week saw the players have their own meeting. These meetings seldom work, but sometimes when a team is so close to achieving success, the airing of problems can help. I guess we will know the answer to that come 7 p.m. EDT tomorrow when the Vols look to upset their most hated rival. (Vandy is a close second, Mr. Butler)
The future for Derek Dooley could possibly revolve around how this team finishes in what was billed to be a "break out season." Athletic Director David Hart certainly has criteria for Dooley’s retention, but that will not be revealed for about a month and a half. In the meantime, there are two chances to get that significant win this team and head coach so desperately need. After that, only games remain that they should win with nothing significant about them, unless they lose one.
Tomorrow night, fans dressed in orange will be counting on the Vols to take the field with upset on their minds. Of course, it would help if there wasn’t a large portion of the stadium wearing crimson like a few years ago.
There is still a lot of pride left on Rocky Top! Now would be a good time for the Vols to embrace this challenge and pull an October surprise on college football’s best team. Finish the second half of the season strong and all those earlier disappointments suddenly become a distant memory. Go Vols!!!!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)