Derek Dooley reviews the 38-35 loss to South Carolina
Derek Dooley is trying to make the best of a bad situation. He is trying to rally his Tennessee team for a charge to the finish line after a 3-5 start.
So the coach has declared this as a "second season," presumably to draw a clear line of demarcation between what has transpired and the possibilities that remain. I don't blame him.
And I expect his team to buy into the new venture, which will begin Saturday afternoon against Troy. As for the fans, that's a different matter.
Players can look at what's left of the football season — in some cases, their last football season — and envision a four-game winning streak, the program's first winning record in three years and a bowl bid. To which, many fans might respond, "So what?"
Great tradition usually translates into great fan support at UT. But this isn't usual. Longtime fans of this program have experienced too much success to get revved up about a four-game winning streak against the likes of Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
They're more interested in the Jon Gruden rumors that are flying faster than passes into UT's beleaguered secondary. Speculation about hiring a coach who is both a Super Bowl winner and a "Monday Night Football" celebrity is slightly more appealing to UT fans than back-to-back victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky and a possible bowl trip to Memphis or Nashville.
Let's back up to the beginning of the "first season" when the team and fans were all in this together. The Vols beat North Carolina State by two touchdowns in the Georgia Dome, and their fans put the last two seven-loss seasons behind them and imagined a resurgence.
The resurgence lasted for two full games and most of three quarters. Then, everything went south against Florida. One tough loss to a nationally ranked team led to another and another. Only the game against No. 1 Alabama was a blowout.
A team can gain confidence and strength from a hard-fought, 38-35 loss to nationally ranked South Carolina last Saturday. But Tennessee fans? Not so much.
November was once a fun time for UT fans. The schedule was often favorable, and their teams capitalized on it. They watched the Vols rise in the polls. They planned bowl trips — out-of-state bowl trips. They looked ahead to the next season.
It's so different now. Never mind whether the team wins its last four games. It won't get close to the top 25. The most attractive bowls are no longer attainable. And next season's schedule includes Oregon, Florida and Alabama on the road.
You can't deny this team is better than Dooley's first two. There's no question he has improved the overall talent level. And if his team embraces the "second season" theme, it could finish 8-5 with the help of a bowl victory.
But in that best possible scenario, would fans be optimistic about 2013? Would they invest in season tickets? Those are questions that athletic director Dave Hart surely has already asked himself in weighing the pros and cons of whether UT's football program needs new leadership.
The team is more apt to be affected by what has happened than what might happen. The large majority of its players experienced a 5-7 season, a 42-point loss to Arkansas and the end of a 26-game winning streak against Kentucky in 2011.
There are worse things than a loss to Kentucky. Two losses, for example. Or a loss to Kentucky and a loss to Vanderbilt in back-to-back seasons.
"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 at Monday's media conference. "We certainly don't want that to happen, and I don't think our team wants that to happen.
"So we have to go out there and prepare right, go play our best, focus on this game and go one at a time."
There was no hint of a letdown against South Carolina, even though it was preceded by a 44-13 loss to Alabama. The offensive line continued to distinguish itself. Senior linebacker Herman Lathers had a career game. So did senior wide receiver Zach Rogers. Quarterback Tyler Bray has never played better against a nationally ranked team.
Those performances point to a strong finish. But a strong finish no longer assures strong interest from a fan base that might be looking elsewhere.
One of those fans emailed me Monday with the news that Gruden already has signed a contract with UT, though details have yet to be worked out. He heard that from a friend whose wife has a brother who works with a law firm that does athletic contracts.