Even as the ambitious goals of August have wilted during an SEC losing streak, Tennessee players have retained a remarkable air of enthusiasm and focus each week.
That good cheer will be tested more than ever after a 51-48 loss in quadruple overtime to Missouri on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
The list of goals to play for is rapidly shrinking:
The end of the "first season" two weeks ago at South Carolina ended any hope of the Vols knocking off a ranked opponent
The idea of playing for the future of the coaching staff seems to be a long-shot.
But after Saturday's loss dropped to 4-6 and 0-6 in the SEC, Dooley's ultimate fate seems almost a foregone conclusion.
Then there's the goal of making the postseason. Even that aspiration is hanging by a thread. The Vols must win both of their final two games — at Vanderbilt and at home against Kentucky — to be bowl eligible. The reward would be a trip to lowest tier of SEC bowls. Yes, the Music City Bowl in Nashville or the Liberty Bowl in Memphis would be possibilities. But so would the (gulp) BBVA Compass Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
"We've got no other options but to go try to beat Vanderbilt and still try to go get into a bowl game," Dooley said after the game. "That's all we can do. It's hard. We've lost four games on the last possession. I guess we're 1-5 or 1-4 at the end of the game. So, it's hard."
Dooley was asked how the loss affected his future.
"I don't know," he said. "We're hurting because of the game and the way the kids played their tails off. There's a lot of negativity and that comes with the territory. I'm just proud of how they keep going out there and they lay it on the line."
Dooley's overall record at Tennessee is 15-20. In 22 SEC games, Dooley has four wins, beating Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in 2010 and Vanderbilt in 2011.
Quarterback Tyler Bray said he was confident the team could bounce back for the final two games of the season.
"We lost. That was it," he said. "We've just got to come in tomorrow, get our running in, and come to practice Monday focused."
Asked if that was getting tiresome, Bray deadpanned, "The running on Sundays is."
Linebacker A.J. Johnson said the routine is getting old.
"I'm tired of losing," he said. "I don't play to lose."
Tight end Mychal Rivera, a senior, said he thinks the bowl game is still a goal worth playing for.
"Two more wins and we're bowl eligible," he said. "That's what we're looking toward right now. We're going to be ready for that."
Cornerback Justin Coleman said the familiarity of Saturday's feeling gives him confidence the Vols will be able to bounce back.
"It makes it easier to come together," he said. "We know what it feels like to lose a close game like this."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.