Tennessee running back Tauren Poole admits thinking about how differently a few of the Volunteers' games might have turned out if they still had quarterback Tyler Bray and top wide receiver Justin Hunter in the lineup.
The senior also knows dwelling on their absence won't do anything to help the Vols (3-5) as they try to regroup against Middle Tennessee State on Saturday and salvage their chances to become bowl eligible.
"Of course I could sit here and say, 'Oh no, we don't think about it,' but that's unrealistic," Poole said. "We need those guys, and you know we need those guys as well and the fans see it, the parents see it, little kids see it. We need everybody we can get. We don't have any depth right now and we're not going to get any depth. We have what we have, so we've got to rally the troops and continue to fight and play the best football that we can."
Tennessee's October schedule seemed brutal enough with three straight games against opponents ranked among the top 15 teams in the nation, but the Vols ended up facing those teams without its top two offensive playmakers. Bray broke the thumb on his throwing hand Oct. 8 and isn't expected back until the last week or two of the season, and Hunter is out for the season after tearing his ACL on Sept. 17.
Coach Derek Dooley opted to start third-string freshman quarterback Justin Worley in Bray's place against South Carolina on Saturday after senior backup quarterback Matt Simms struggled against No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. Worley, who was 10 for 26 with 105 yards passing launched several long accurate passes — some of which were dropped by receivers — but threw two costly turnovers deep in the Gamecocks' territory in the 14-3 loss.
A last-ditch effort to score with Simms in at quarterback resulted in the Vols turning the ball over on downs just outside the red zone. Simms was 5-of-12 for 46 yards on his lone drive, and Tennessee's streak of quarters without a touchdown extended to 10.
"I feel like we've improved in a lot of areas, but the last three weeks we took a step backward because we can't throw and catch," Dooley said. "It's very difficult when you're 0-5 in the SEC to feel good. It's hard. It hurts. The players hurt. I hurt. You can't sleep at night trying to figure solutions, but you've got to keep your perspective on where you are and where you need to go."
Dooley's solution for now is to stick with Worley but give the freshman a simpler game plan. He also expects the wide receivers to play better after dropping or flat-out missing so many of Worley's accurate passes.
"I think there were a lot of nerves out there that affected him, especially early on," he said. "I don't think anybody really played well around him, and that was the disappointing part. So everybody has to do their part and play better around him and I think we'll be fine."
The Vols' bad luck with injuries continued against No. 12 South Carolina as starting strong safety Brent Brewer tore the ACL in his left knee, ending his season too. Depth at safety has been a concern all season for Tennessee, and Brewer's absence means Prentiss Waggner will move to free safety from cornerback, and Brian Randolph will move from free safety to strong safety, a spot that will be new to him.
Waggner played safety early in the season as Randolph worked to develop his role, but the junior is more comfortable at cornerback, where he has six career interceptions, including one against South Carolina on Saturday.
"We really don't have many options," Dooley said. "We wanted Prentiss at corner all year. We finally got him there and we finally got Randolph ready. We move (Waggner) to corner and he gets a pick, he's playing good and we have to move him back now."
After so many tough games and so much tough luck, Tennessee hopes to catch a breather against the Blue Raiders (2-5). The Vols have won 80 percent of their November games in the past 11 years, and they'll need to win at least of three of four games this month for a third straight shot at playing in the postseason.
But Dooley thinks Middle Tennessee has had a few bad breaks of its own and won't be an easy foe.
"I know this: they are good enough to beat us, every bit," he said. "If we don't figure out a way to score some points, we will be in next week not feeling too good either."