Tennessee Stat Book
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, frustrated by another close loss to an SEC opponent, sent out a tweet about "bandwagon fans" not long after the Vols were defeated 41-31 by Mississippi State Saturday night.
When the Vols returned home to Knoxville and the sun rose on campus Sunday morning, Tennessee's iconic Rock had a new paint job that listed criticisms of coach Derek Dooley and called for his firing.
Bray deleted his tweet and later apologized to Tennessee fans. The Rock was quickly repainted. But the fissures in a season that started with so much optimism are starting to grow, and the next two weeks will make the Vols' aspiration of "getting over the hump" with a big SEC win all the more difficult.
Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC) plays No. 1 Alabama (6-0, 3-0) on Saturday (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.) in the first game at Neyland Stadium in nearly a month.
The Tide trounced Missouri over the weekend and come to Knoxville as an 18.5-point favorite. Alabama leads the nation in pass defense, pass efficiency, rush defense, scoring defense and total defense. The Tide's offense isn't bad, either.
The Vols rebounded from an awful first half to make things interesting in Starkville, but the loss to the Bulldogs marked Tennessee's 13th consecutive defeat against a ranked opponent in Dooley's three-year tenure.
"All you can try to do is go to the next one and get over the hump the next week. We didn't do it today," Dooley said. "That's how collegiate athletics is. You never know when it's going to happen. So you have to keep coaching and keep correcting and keep evaluating and play your way through it."
With games against Alabama and South Carolina looming, the trip to Mississippi State was supposed to be the best time to conquer that hump. Instead, in front of a decibel-blasting sellout crowd energized by the Bulldogs' best start in 13 years, Tennessee succumbed to the same errors that had plagued its first two losses.
"You don't really expect to have growing pains,"
said safety Byron Moore of the team's optimism back in August. "You expect to play perfect, but it's not a perfect world. It's part of football. We have to go back and get ready for next week."
While much of the attention will understandably be focused on the struggling defense, the offense has concerns of its own.
Bray insisted after the game that his knee was fine after he took a hit in the third quarter that left him hobbling, but he didn't put up characteristic numbers
"We've played good in the first half and fallen apart in the second half. Today, we fell apart in the first half and finished strong in the second," Bray said. "We just need to put two and two together."
Tennessee played the second half without its top two running backs, starter Rajion Neal (ankle) and backup Marlin Lane (thigh). Dooley is likely to address their status in greater detail today during his weekly news conference.
The Vols still racked up 213 rushing yards, although Devrin Young's fumble in the fourth quarter was especially costly.
"It's a tough loss, but we have to dust it off and move on," Dooley said. "That's all you can do. Correct the mistakes and move on."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.