If Tennessee ends the losing streak against ranked teams that has taunted it for the past three seasons, coach Derek Dooley won't be on the sidelines to receive a celebratory high-five, hug or Gatorade bath.
Dooley will be perched high above the field in the press box of Davis Wade Stadium, smiling at the victory and perhaps grimacing as he tries to move his newly repaired right hip.
The Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) take on No. 19 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0) today (TV: ESPN2, 9 p.m.) in Starkville in what might be the most important game of Tennessee's season.
The Vols have lost league games to Florida and Georgia. The next two games on the schedule are against No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 South Carolina.
That leaves today as the best opportunity for Dooley and the Vols to pick up their first victory against a ranked opponent in his three-year tenure and finally retire the recurring questions about that 0-12 mark.
"This is a good opportunity on the road against a good football team that has a lot of swagger right now," Dooley said.
Mississippi State has that swagger thanks to an undefeated start and a rare national ranking. The Bulldogs have won seven games in a row dating back to last year and are off to their best start since 1999.
"I don't care who you play, that's hard to do," Dooley said.
Who the Bulldogs have played, of course, is the asterisk on their undefeated season. Wins against the weakest teams in the SEC (Auburn and Kentucky) and an Championship Subdivision school (Jackson State) are the causes for skepticism.
While the Bulldogs haven't always won those games with flair, they've demonstrated a workmanlike dedication to the intangibles — solid defense, balanced offense, impressive turnover margin.
"They exercise a lot of patience in their game and we need to do the same thing," Dooley said.
The Vols have had two weeks to digest their loss at Georgia. Tennessee's offense kept the game close while the defense was victimized by big plays. In the fourth, Tennessee shut down Georgia's offense, but Vols quarterback Tyler Bray committed three consecutive turnovers.
It was another missed chance to get over the hump that has been so difficult to conquer for the Vols.
"(The team) has never really been uptight or nervous, but there comes a point where we're learning these lessons each week, let's convert them into some wins," Dooley said. "We all know we need to do that."
Dooley has been quietly coaching through pain for most of this season. Last Friday, an MRI revealed that what he thought was a mild hip irritant was actually a fracture. Doctors instructed him to undergo surgery immediately.
Dooley missed Wednesday's practice but watched workouts from a golf cart on Thursday. He plans to watch today's game from the coaches' box, seated next to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
"I have no issue with it," Chaney said. "Coach and I have a great relationship. We talk throughout the game all the time. He'll just be sitting right beside me."
Coaches downplayed the significance of Dooley's move upstairs. There will be no administrative changes. Dooley will communicate decisions about timeouts, penalties and challenges to coaches on the field via headset.
"We will manage; we're grown-ups," Chaney said. "I'm sure he will yell at me, I'll yell at him and we'll get right through it and move on with the game. That's what happens. Well, I won't yell at him. He's my boss. You know how that goes."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.