Game preview: UT vs. Bama in Tuscaloosa
The checklist doesn't officially start with the obvious.
For any competitor, there's always going to be one thing that never has to be identified.
"Everybody wants to win," Derek Dooley said. "I mean, I want to win.
"We're going into every game trying to win the football game."
That doesn't change even when the personnel differences are glaring, when the rebuilding effort is measured against programs at the peak of their power or when injuries have removed some of the most talented players the Tennessee coach has at his disposal.
But there are going to be games along the way like a blowout last week to No. 1 LSU when even if Dooley is seeing progress, the scoreboard doesn't do much to reflect it. The challenge doesn't get any easier for the Vols at Bryant-Denny Stadium against No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night (TV: ESPN2, 7:15 p.m.), and while the ultimate goal remains the same and his unranked team has embraced another chance to play spoiler against a rival, at this stage in the process Dooley is still evaluating more than just victories or defeats.
"It's hard when you're a competitor," Dooley said. "It's hard to lose like that (against LSU). But it's important to keep your focus.
"No. 1, am I doing the best job that I can do as the head coach? No. 2, are coaches doing the best job they can do as assistants? No. 3, are the players playing as hard as we want them to play? If that's the case, then you have to wake up as a man and feel good about the work you're doing and not let the external disappointments or whatever you want to call them affect what your focus is — trying to get your team prepared to play the next game."
That effort seems to encounter a new hurdle almost every week for the Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) at the midway point of Derek Dooley's second season, with the two-game swing against the best teams in the country just part of the difficulty.
From Dooley on down through the coaching staff and to the players, UT has refused to budge from its policy of not making any excuses this season, even as possibilities have popped up during a sluggish start to conference play leading up to the meeting with the Crimson
Tide (7-0, 4-0).
The Vols are running low on veterans and leaning heavily on freshmen, they lost a star receiver for the year during the third game and could conceivably be without their starting quarterback for the rest of the regular season. And obviously they're having to deal with it all in a rugged conference featuring two prominent national title contenders.
But UT hasn't changed its expectations for anybody on the field, regardless of age. It has focused its offense around what backup quarterback Matt Simms can do well, which last week helped produce one of the best rushing performances of the season. And, of course, there's nothing that can be done about the schedule.
"You can't pick and choose who you play against," Simms said. "Hey, the first week it was rough for my first start against LSU, the No. 1 team in the country.
"But now we're just looking forward to playing the second team in the country."
Like every week, the Vols have tried to treat the Crimson Tide just like they would any other opponent, despite acknowledging their talent, ranking and the longstanding rivalry.
None of that changes what UT is seeking tonight — or in the long run.
"Is it difficult? Yeah," Dooley said. "You want to win and it doesn't mean you accept losing. Sometimes they happen, and then you've got to go regroup. There's nothing you can do but accept it, move forward and try to make sure it doesn't happen again. But that's not the standard.
"You're out there to compete and you're out there to improve and turn this thing into what the expectations are. But if you get so focused on the results, you will never do the things that are necessary to give you the results you want."