Tennessee Stat Book
The elimination games had been going on all month.
Derek Dooley just waited until the last round before acknowledging the unofficial playoff race Tennessee has faced each week in November, finally and briefly bringing it up after moving one win away from a bowl bid.
But even though the first-year coach and the Vols are all clearly aware of what's on the line on Saturday against Kentucky (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.), Dooley obviously doesn't want to talk much about it. And if he could find a way to do it, he would prefer a possible postseason trip not cross anybody's mind at all after last weekend's lackluster 24-10 road win over Vanderbilt.
"I just think when you're focusing on what comes with a result, you're not focusing on what you need to do to get the result," Dooley said during his Sunday teleconference. "It's like going out there and wanting to win versus wanting to play well and doing all the things necessary to win. I just think it distracts you from what your mind should be on, and your mind should be on, 'What do I need to do today to prepare me to play for next week?'
"If you're thinking about a bowl game, that's not helping you play good. I think that it's going to be in their minds, and what I try to do is keep their focus on the game and competing. I think it's impossible to say, 'Don't think about a bowl game.' But I don't see how that helps you play better."
Like it or not, the Vols (5-6, 2-5 SEC) have talked more and more about their postseason chances each week during their three-game win streak since Tyler Bray took over at quarterback. And with a win-or-stay-home showdown with the Wildcats (6-5, 2-5 SEC) looming, the conversation figures to only get louder.
The sloppy win over the Commodores did provide Dooley with plenty of options to quiet the Vols down a little bit, though, starting with the first real rough patch for Bray since he was handed the reins to the offense. The true freshman threw two interceptions, appeared to have some problems handling different looks from the defense and certainly wasn't picking apart Vanderbilt the way he did the previous two opponents, though Dooley hardly seemed surprised by that after the game.
Like issues with UT's rushing attack and even bigger problems with its punt returners, the lessons didn't come in a loss or at the expense of a bowl game, which might make it easier for Dooley to get the attention of his team on the practice field.
"Well, we need to do something different than we did last week, because we played pretty poorly," Dooley said. "What I mean by that is, we've got to get back to focusing on a lot better week of preparation. But we're not going to do anything different as far as structure, as far as what we emphasize.
"We're not really going to be talking about a bowl game because we're not going to be there if we don't beat Kentucky. We've got a heck of an opponent coming our way."
It also happens to be one the Vols have traditionally been able to count on for a win, at least for the last 25 years - putting even more on the line for the Vols in the regular-season finale.
The trick is finding a way to keep UT's focus off winning streaks or the postseason.
"That's one of your baseline standards, you want to be in a bowl game every year," Dooley said. "Certainly for recruiting it helps and you just always want to be playing in postseason play, it gives you those extra practices, but it's also just good exposure for the program.
"Yeah, it's always an important thing. But at the same time, it's not going to destroy our program if we don't get there this year."
With one more playoff win, UT won't have to worry about that.