COLUMBIA, S.C. — The last chance for a season-defining and perhaps job-saving victory comes today at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC) has whiffed in four opportunities against ranked conference opponents and today's game against No. 17 South Carolina (6-2, 4-2) will likely be the Vols' last shot. The game kicks off at noon and will be televised by ESPN.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is 4-16 in SEC play in three seasons. He's lost 11 of his last 12 in conference and is 0-14 against ranked opponents. The Vols finish the season with four winnable, if hardly surefire, games against Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
But this will be the last crack at a win that might dampen the increasing speculation about Dooley's job security.
"We would like come out of here saying we beat a ranked opponent," Dooley said. "My biggest thing is, I want to see us play our best for four quarters, which we haven't done."
Will four quarters be enough? It depends on which South Carolina team shows up.
Just three weeks ago, the Gamecocks had a dominating 35-7 victory against Georgia. Many crowned Carolina the team to beat in the SEC and perhaps a dark horse national championship pick.
But after a close but uninspiring loss at LSU, the Gamecocks were thrashed 44-11 last week at Florida. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, in classic fashion, benched his starting quarterback Connor Shaw at halftime and called the performance "embarrassing."
"We've got to re-evaluate a lot of our personnel and get players out there who really want to play for South Carolina," Spurrier said. "Two weeks ago, I wouldn't have thought this. LSU was bad. This one was worse. We've got to regroup somehow."
Spurrier himself regrouped a day later, pledging support for Shaw and expressing more confidence about the team's hopes going forward — even if they no longer include an appearance in the SEC championship game.
The Gamecocks are back home at Williams-Brice, where they have won eight games in a row in front of crowds that always had a reputation for enthusiasm even back when South Carolina was a league doormat.
Those days seem long gone now.
Since 2000, the Tennessee-South Carolina game has the closest average scoring margin of any game in the SEC. Seven of the 12 meetings have been decided by single digits. Only one game (a 27-6 South Carolina win in 2008) has been decided by more than 20 points.
South Carolina is a 14-point favorite today, likely due to skepticism about Tennessee's ability to stop much of anything on defense. But Dooley was most critical of the offense after the Alabama game, particularly quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter.
Bray, who seemed to accept the criticism more agreeably than Hunter, said what the Vols need more than anything else is a win. The details are unimportant. Dooley didn't disagree.
"We were pretty confident and nothing hurts your confidence more than going out there and losing the way we have lost," he said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.