Derek Dooley let down his guard just a little.
The Tennessee coach was still preaching the process and was quick to admit there’s plenty of work left to do. But after digging out of a midseason hole and fighting through elimination games for an entire month to make a bowl, Dooley finally allowed the Vols to focus on what he’d been telling them to ignore.
The results are in for UT, and with a 24-14 victory over Kentucky at Neyland Stadium on Saturday officially clinching a trip to the postseason, it’s now safe for the team to look at them.
“The results were good,” Dooley said after the win. “I say if you trust the process, the results will come. Our guys trusted the process, so the results came.
“Well, I mean, I’d be sitting here lying if I said it didn’t matter to me. Of course you feel good, the players should feel good and I’m one of 200 people in our organization that made this happen.”
Considering all the adversity the Vols (6-6, 3-5 SEC) were dealt, it took considerable effort from everybody involved to turn around a season that easily could have turned into a disaster during a winless October.
Instead, a group of veteran receivers teamed up with a true freshman quarterback to give UT one of the most lethal passing attacks in the conference over the last month of the season.
A continuously shuffled secondary started forcing turnovers, a group that was criticized for a lack of pressure up front started getting to the quarterback more often, and despite little depth, collectively the defense bottled up a pair of dangerous teams while knocking off Ole Miss and Kentucky as part of the four-game winning streak.
Even off the field the Vols started making some headway, picking up commitments from a pair of high-profile recruits while turning loose seemingly every freshman signed in the coaching staff’s first class. And though the recruiting work had nothing to do with climbing back for a likely trip to the Music City Bowl next month in Nashville, the extra practices could do wonders for all those young players already on campus who helped punch the ticket along with a resilient senior class.
“It’s huge, huge,” senior receiver Gerald Jones said. “It’s a blessing for the seniors to start 2-6 and then end up in a bowl game. It’s a blessing, and we’re very happy to extend this season, but it’s even better for this team in the future, for a young team to fight back like we did later in the year. It gave them a chance to go to a bowl game.
“I think it’s awesome, and I can’t explain it, the way this team united and believed in each other and trusted in one another and just fought hard for one another. The last month in the SEC is not easy.”
Nothing ever was for UT even before that, with the difficulty becoming clear to Dooley as far back as spring practice when the reality of a roster thinned by two coaching transitions in two seasons first became obvious.
But the Vols never used that as an excuse publicly, and they didn’t dwell on injuries like a broken hand that took Jones out of action early in the season. They also seemed to pay little attention to factors they couldn’t control — like bowl projections or a winning streak over the Wildcats that is now up to 26 games.
The process apparently worked this year — though neither it nor the season is over.
“I couldn’t have done it without the commitment of the players, I couldn’t have done it without the coaches doing a great job, and the most important thing I was, I couldn’t have done it if at 2-6 we had anybody starting to flinch and show doubt,” Dooley said. “We didn’t, they just stayed the course, everybody in the whole organization.
“When that happens, good things happen.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.