KNOXVILLE — Even though Tennessee has been through so much turmoil and turnover in the past three seasons, coach Derek Dooley still wants the loss in the Music City Bowl to resonate with the Volunteers throughout their offseason.
"Every time that they want to lay in bed and not work in the offseason, they better think about how they feel, so I hope that they bottle this feeling up," Dooley said. "I hope that they bottled that feeling up after Baton Rouge, and I hope that they bottled that feeling up after a whole bunch of other losses that we had. I know I will."
The bowl game against North Carolina was supposed to be the Vols' reward for fighting through the adversity from having three different coaching staffs in as many years and was going to set the tone for the team's growth in the coming seasons.
Instead, the Tar Heels won 30-27 in the second overtime after a crazy end to regulation that almost sent the Vols home with the win. It was the second time this season Tennessee found itself on the losing end of a dramatic game.
Time had appeared to run out in regulation with the Vols up by three points as North Carolina's T.J. Yates spiked the ball. After first saying the game was over, the Big Ten officiating reviewed the play and ruled that there was 1 second left on the clock, but that the Tar Heels had too many men on the field — and penalized North Carolina 5 yards.
Casey Barth kicked a 39-yard field goal to send the game to overtime and hit a 23-yard field goal in the second overtime to win after Quan Sturdivant picked off Tyler Bray to end the Vols' chances.
"It makes it tougher this time because it is the last game of my career," senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. "I wanted to go out with a win and so did a lot of the other seniors. The young guys wanted to cap the season off for us. We were looking forward to ending this season on a high note, but unfortunately that didn't happen."
Dooley has credited the senior class for buying into his staff's coaching methods and holding together a team that went 2-6 in the first two months of the season, including 0-4 in October, and faced the likes of No. 2 Oregon, No. 11 LSU, No. 15 Alabama and No. 19 South Carolina this year.
The Vols (6-7) had already endured a heartbreaking loss before the Music City Bowl — their setback against LSU in Baton Rouge on Oct. 2. Tennessee had too many defenders on the field, giving the Tigers another chance to pull out a 16-14 win.
Dooley knew after a winless October, the team could have easily given up on the season. Instead it put together a four-game winning streak with victories over Memphis, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to earn their bowl bid.
"I hurt for that whole football team," the first-year coach said. "There (were) a bunch of guys in there crying, but I told them I was proud of them. This team has been fighting like heck since November, and they put up a heck of a fight against a good football team tonight."
Aside from the small group of senior leaders, Tennessee's roster was composed mostly of young players this season. Defections that followed to the firing of Phillip Fulmer at the end of the 2008 season and the abrupt departure of Lane Kiffin for Southern California in January and injuries throughout the season left the roster especially thin.
The Vols played 16 true freshmen this season and got significant contributions from several like Bray, wide receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers and offensive linemen James Stone, Ja'Wuan James and Zach Fulton.
Their improvement during the season helped spark the four-game winning streak, and they now have the opportunity to get even better in their first full offseason at Tennessee. To do that they need to question how they could have made the Music City Bowl turn out differently, Dooley said.
"There were a lot of opportunities to win the game before the end there," he said. "Any time the result doesn't go your way, the first thing you should do is say, 'What could we have done differently to change the outcome?'"