Tennessee Stat Book
September, as any Tennessee football historian knows, hasn’t always been the greatest month.
Derek Dooley’s team is hardly plowing new ground with a slow start.
An extra maxim has often been invoked around here:
They remember what you do in November.
All the way back in 1986, the defending SEC champions stumbled out 2-5, then won five in a row, including the Liberty Bowl.
Even the 0-6 fiasco in ’88 got turned around to 5-6.
Phillip Fulmer’s second team opened 1-3 in 1994. Then it went 7-1 the rest of the way.
The 2000 team was spinning its wheels at 2-3, then won six in a row and landed in the Cotton Bowl.
There was hand-wringing in 2007 when the Vols opened 1-2, giving up 45 points to Cal and 59 to Florida. Those hands were clapping when UT arrived in Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
So what if Dooley’s Vols had to scramble to beat UAB 32-29 in two overtimes Saturday? Back in July, didn’t 2-2 seem the likely result to take into October?
Don’t young, inexperienced players generally improve as they become battle-hardened?
But 2010 might be an exception. It could play out that not even November saves this team.
This we know: October is going to be brutal, with visits to LSU, Georgia and South Carolina. The lights in Neyland Stadium come on only once, for Alabama.
Furthermore, the Vols were so inept in so many areas Saturday that even a November of Memphis, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt looks more like a series of dogfights than the traditional victory parade.
The biggest obstacle, however, is right here in Knoxville.
Or, rather, it’s the players who aren’t right here in Knoxville any more.
Attrition has left the Vols so short-handed it’s going to be a challenge for the coaching staff to mold the necessary improvement.
None of those strong-finishing UT squads mentioned above were playing with 15 to 20 fewer scholarship players than the teams they lined up against on Saturdays.
Injuries are poison to a thin roster and UT is already feeling the pain. The last thing offensive linemen Cody Pope and JerQuari Schofield needed were early season injuries robbing them of invaluable game experience.
“It does affect you when you have to move people around,’’ Dooley said Sunday night. “It slows you down.
“And my biggest concern is the number of plays these guys are getting. Janzen Jackson and Prentiss Waggner played 96 snaps (against UAB). When you play 96 snaps, it’s hard to play great football.’’
Teams improve on the practice field, too. At least that’s how it should work.
But the Vols don’t have enough bodies to field a first and second unit, plus a decent scout team to practice against.
Dooley cancelled today’s practice to give the squad 48 hours for physical recovery after four consecutive games. He’s also debating the merits of a no-contact, NFL-style practice.
That’s a problem, though.
“The NFL is less player development and more game-planning,’’ he said. “We’ve got to teach guys how to block and tackle and it’s hard to do without a lot of numbers.’’
The numbers might get worse before they get better. Given the October ahead, there will be blood.
Before you tear up your season tickets, keep in mind that some teams do overcome adversity. It’s too early to write off 2010.
“I never try to evaluate a schedule,’’ Dooley said. “Every time you do, you miss the boat.
“Now, I say, ‘Who do we have next? Let’s go do what we can to win.’ ’’
It’s just that with so few bodies — and the constant threat of more injuries — there’s less he can do to go win than those UT teams in the past.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.