(Because when we lose to our biggest rivals by 31 in our own house, we deserve every ounce of the embarrassment contained in a Gloria Estefan headline.)
Knoxville, Fall 2010 is an unfamiliar place. The colors are the same, but the sights and sounds are very different. It's never been more clear than on the Third Saturday in October - the difference wasn't just in the worst beating the Vols have suffered against the Tide since 1963 (and the worst in Knoxville, ever)...it was tangible before and after the game. It was the price tickets were going for from scalpers. It was the general lack of back-and-forth between Vol and Tide fans before the game, which was replaced after the game with a few Tennessee fans "taunting" the Crimson faithful with "GAME! COCKS! GAME! COCKS!" I can't tell you how many times in the late 90s fans of every other team in the SEC did the Gator Chomp at us when we were beating them by 30 in the fourth quarter.
And it was the ultimate sign of respect in this rivalry: Alabama fans telling me, before kickoff, that I should be patient with this coach, and that things were going to get better for us if we just hung in there. I know these words, because I spoke them to Alabama fans in years like 2004.
Because I want Alabama to be good. Because this rivalry deserves it, demands it. And when one of us isn't holding up our end of the bargain - a role we've traded over the last ten years - the Third Saturday isn't all it could be, or should be.
I have greater respect for Alabama's traditions than any other school in the country...and I can't stand seeing them celebrated in Neyland Stadium.
In the first half, we had the makings of a classic Tennessee/Alabama game, where you throw out the records and the rosters and see who blinks first. In the second half, the records and the rosters made a huge difference, and we blinked repeatedly. If Alabama's offense was struggling with rhythm or identity, they found a simple solution: get the ball to Julio Jones, and watch Tennessee's defense try to stop it.
Meanwhile, both Tennessee's offense and our season lack any real rhythm at all.
Coaches in their first year deserve grace that abounds. Our coach, who inherited a unique nightmare, may end up getting a free pass on 2010 even if the Vols don't win another game. However, there are still some things that we can learn about Dooley, and there are still some things that can draw both praise and concern. For instance, our inability to get 11 guys on the field doesn't need any analysis, it needs to get fixed, period. Last year, Tennessee's run of getting four field goals blocked in four games was absolutely unacceptable, no matter how many years Lane Kiffin had been doing it.
One of the things that interests me most about Derek Dooley is the way he's so committed to The Process, and yet he's made several moves this year that seemed to run contrary to the meticulous sort of plan that supposedly exists. The first one was against Oregon: Tennessee got field goals on its first two drives for a 6-0 lead, then had 4th and 6 at the Oregon 30 on the third drive...and went for it. We didn't get it, and the decision seemed very forced, like Dooley was trying to make something happen.
"Trying to make something happen" is also on the list of reasons why Tyler Bray played on Saturday night, though many will disagree on exactly how high on that list it is. We had that argument in detail last week, and in two weeks we'll be much more eager to see him perhaps. But against Alabama, our freshman QB played like one: 5 of 14 for 39 yards and an interception.
A bigger issue with Bray was any responsibility he had with a rapid-fire series of penalties, and a general inability to get lined up right. Say what you will about Matt Simms, who did throw another end zone interception on another hero throw, but you know, maybe he's right - maybe he knows the Vols can't win with field goals, and he's forcing balls into double coverage in the end zone and hoping for the best because it's the only chance we've got to compete. At the very least, Simms gets us in and out of the huddle, has learned how to avoid pressure, and gets us lined up right.
At the same time though, in the game with our true freshman quarterback during the three penalty series were two true freshmen at wide receiver and three true freshmen on the offensive line. This is who we are. Asked about it on his radio show in the postgame, Dooley said, "They're out there in their diapers, and sometimes they wet their pants."
(If you're not listening to The Derek Dooley Show on the Vol Network postgame coverage, you're missing out on Dooley's best material. Saturday, you also missed good stuff on the Final Scoreboard Show when there was a segment that went something like this: one caller complained about Dooley being over his head, the next caller said the first one must've been drinking, and a third caller said drinking wasn't enough, and he was going to have to start dropping acid to get through watching us play that poorly against Alabama.)
Bray disrupted the rhythm of an offense that struggles to find any at all, both in his play and in the decision to put him in the game at all. I think Tyler Bray can do great things at this university one day...but Saturday was never going to be that day. This Saturday won't be that day either, and I hope we don't seriously return to this question until the Memphis game.
I also thought it was curious to watch the Vols make a very aggressive play in running the hurry-up in the final seconds of the first half, get a first down to the 15 yard line with 9 seconds left...and then decide we were good there, and let the clock run down and settle for three. Why step on the gas and take risks all the way downfield, and then get super conservative at the finish line?
Kicking another field goal in September or not playing Bray and taking a shot at the end zone at the end of the half on Saturday would not have changed the outcome of the Oregon or Alabama games. But they were odd moments where The Process got a little harder to understand, and a team searching for any rhythm and any consistency got derailed.
Where does the rhythm of the entire season go in the final five games? It obviously hasn't been pretty through the first seven, and is projected to get worse to the tune of 17 points in Columbia on Saturday. This is the first time since Carolina joined the SEC that the Gamecocks are the more talented team in this matchup - at least for now, they've passed us by.
Two years ago, a Tennessee team that appeared to be at its most disinterested and dysfunctional in Columbia watched the final nail get slammed into Phillip Fulmer's coffin, fittingly at the hands of Steve Spurrier. This time, the Vols will come to Columbia dealing with a different set of painful issues: we've traded frustration and division for a true rebuilding project, and this year is the ground floor. We were so close with LSU, but have since lost to a 1-4 Georgia team by 24, had an off week to get better, then lost to our biggest rival by 31. I think it will be a challenge for Dooley to have this team ready to roll on Saturday.
But no matter how bad it gets in Columbia, Dooley and the 2010 Vols will still have a chance left to show us something. More than just the goal of bowl eligibility, Tennessee will still have a chance to find the progress that's been so hard to find all year against their November opponents.
Maybe Dooley gets a pass on the entire year; I'm not sure General Neyland would've done much better under these circumstances. But if he can get the Vols through Columbia, still standing and ready to fight against Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, there's still a chance something positive can happen this year.
To do that, the Vols have to find some rhythm on offense. If we find a way to do that, we may find something to build on before this season's over. The bridge between a frustrating start and a still-hopeful finish runs through Columbia on Saturday.