The "second season" has started. How it goes could have major implications for the future of Tennessee football.
It begins today with Troy and ends in 21 days against Kentucky. In between are games against Missouri and Vanderbilt.
If the Vols finish this month 4-0, the second season will go a long way toward easing the pain of the first. If the Vols lose any of the next four games — including, or perhaps especially, this one — a change at the helm of Tennessee football might be inevitable.
The Vols (3-5) play Troy (4-4) today (TV: FSTN, noon) at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley used the phrase "second season" shortly after last week's loss to South Carolina. In the "first season," Tennessee attempt to defeat five ranked SEC opponents ended 0-5.
"It's all pretty clear that the legacy of this team and the character of this team is going to be defined by how we compete these last four games," Dooley said.
The significance of the fresh start has been impressed upon players, several of whom repeated some variation on the line "You always remember what happens in November," this week.
Most haven't forgotten last November's loss to Kentucky, the first by a Tennessee team in 26 years. The Vols would like to replace that game with happier memories in 2012.
But first on the agenda, as Dooley has hastened to point out, is Troy, a team with a well-earned reputation for upsets.
The Vols are 19-point favorites and Troy is coming off a loss to a subpar Florida Atlantic team. But the Trojans are still dangerous, nearly beating Mississippi State in Week 3 and averaging 28 points and 460 yards per game.
"We can't go 4-0 without going 1-0," Dooley said. "I told the players I don't want to even talk about 4-0, because we have to go 1-0 first. We have to get a win, and we haven't done that in a while. If we think we are going to roll the ball out there and get a 'W,' we're really fooling ourselves."
Players and coaches say they see no signs of this year's squad repeating last November's swoon. They point to last week's South Carolina game — in which the Vols were threatening to score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes — as evidence that no one has packed it in.
"Anybody that was on this team last year, we all remember how we felt at the end of last year about how we competed," Dooley said. "We certainly don't want that to happen. So we have to go out there and prepare right, play our best, focus on this game and go one at a time."
After a long run near the top of the Sun Belt, Troy has struggled in the past two years. The Trojans went 3-9 in 2011 and will have to fight to avoid their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1989.
But Troy's offense is still potent. The Trojans are 68-4 when scoring at least 35 points under 22-year head coach Larry Blakeney, a distinction that could be tested today against Tennessee's struggling defense.
"There's just no excuse," Dooley said. "We should be playing better than we are."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.