Four Top 25 SEC opponents await after the Vols’ response game against a hungry MAC team this week. How will the Tennessee Volunteers respond after a disheartening loss to Florida? The fate of their head coach Derek Dooley may hang in the balance. After a season opening victory over NC State in the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game and a 2-0 start, the Volunteers cracked the Top 25 for the first time since 2008. Great start for a coach said to be on the “hot seat” entering his third season as head coach.
Then came the annual SEC East battle with the Gators. The rivalry, gaining national recognition again with both teams ranked and ESPN’s College Gameday coming back in Knoxville for the first time since 2004, would be a huge test for Dooley’s Volunteers. Hoping to break the winning streak of the Gators and get Dooley that much needed signature win, the Volunteers collapsed in the 2nd-half, ultimately losing 37-20.
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Say good-bye to that Top 25 ranking and hello to the “hot seat” once again. Tennessee fans have been hungry for a big win and losing to the Gators for the 8th straight year is not going to get the job done in their eyes. Is it fair to judge a man who has only been on the job for three years and inherited a “complete mess” on Rocky Top? Probably not, but empty seats in 102,000 capacity Neyland Stadium will surely not help Dooley’s cause. And unfortunately for him, that’s how Tennessee fans will react if the Volunteers don’t turn it around.
College football is a business and when your paying customer isn’t happy with the product your putting out on the field, they demand a new product. Question is, will the UT athletic and school officials agree?
While Tennessee fans are calling for Dooley’s head now, his next five games will probably determine if he will be given a 4th-year at the helm. Starting with Akron, a high octane offensive MAC team coached by former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, Tennessee must come out and show they can bounce back from a tough loss. Not win by 20, win by 40. Don’t be surprised to see 85,000 to 90,000 in Neyland on Saturday night, considering it’s Akron and the SEC decided to schedule this game for 7:30 PM. LSU or Florida at 7:30 PM? Sure. Akron at 7:30 PM? No way. TV money, like I said, it’s business.
After Akron comes the gauntlet. First up is No. 5-ranked Georgia in Athens. The Volunteers will then have a bye week which they will certainly need. Following Georgia is the No. 23-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville, before coming home the next week to face No. 1 Alabama. “Murderer’s Row” ends the next week with a trip to Columbia to face the No. 7-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks. Without a doubt the toughest consecutive four games any team in the nation will face this season.
Going into Athens 3-1 and leaving Columbia 3-5 will not do. Tennessee has got to get at least a split in those four games or Dooley will be looking for a job next year. Just a fact. After those four games, Tennessee must still face Missouri at home and play a definitely tougher Vanderbilt squad on the road. Lose those two games with probable wins against Troy and Kentucky, and the Volunteers are looking at their second straight losing season at 6-7. This is worst case scenario, but it could happen.
It happened last year to the Volunteers. Tennessee went into Gainesville 2-0, coming out with a 33-23 loss, then the wheels came off, finishing 3-7 down the stretch. For Dooley, a repeat would be disastrous. No bowl will more than likely equal no job.
If Tennessee can indeed bounce back, with the offense and defense both getting back on track, Tennessee could indeed finish the season at 9-3 or 8-4. First off, Georgia, Mississippi State, and South Carolina are all very winnable games. The Volunteers played the Dawgs tough last year. Georgia has been very suspect on defense so far, Mississippi State is far from a juggernaut, and South Carolina rarely has the Volunteers’ number.
Alabama on the other hand is a different monster. Tennessee’s NFL caliber receivers do match up well with the Bama secondary, but the decision making of Tyler Bray has to improve. Plus, the defense can’t give up the big plays like it did against the Gators. Am I picking the Vols over Bama? No, but stranger things in college football have happened. And in a rivalry game, anything is possible. Remember 2009? Undefeated Alabama needs a Mount Cody block to preserve a 12-10 win and the national title dreams of the Crimson Tide.
Even with a loss to Bama, Tennessee could come out of the five game stretch 4-1 to push their record to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the SEC East. To say that would be a step up for the Volunteers would be an understatement and it would give Dooley the job protection he most definitely needs in this, the season of “the hot seat”. And put fans back into the seats.
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