There is no doubt these Vols are better than either of their last two versions. There is no doubt Tennessee is getting closer. But when you can't get that one breakthrough win - the win the Vols looked like they had with five minutes to play in the third quarter of the Florida game, the win the Vols were driving to get twice in the fourth quarter in Athens - you have to make sure you don't lose any of the ones you shouldn't.
Mississippi State moves to 6-0 and put 450 yards and 41 points on Tennessee's defense. The Bulldogs earned it tonight, and they deserve credit, especially for a strong final drive that killed the last of UT's hope. But this one, more than the other two losses this year, will leave Vol fans pointing the finger at their own side instead of the other. The biggest play of the game was Mychal Rivera's indecision on a high, short kickoff. It was intended to keep the ball out of Cordarrelle Patterson's hands; CP finished with 195 total yards and a pair of touchdowns. Instead, it turned into an instant possession for Mississippi State when Rivera inexplicably let the ball bounce and State recovered, one that turned a 20-14 game into a 27-14 game.
Tennessee's defense - gashed in familiar fashion early - did make some nice adjustments for most of the second half. But before the Bulldogs punched it in on that final drive, there was a series of little things - most notably a dropped interception by Byron Moore (who has four on the year, so I'm not about to kill this guy) and a fumble by Devrin Young - that helped keep the MSU lead juuuuuuust out of reach. And again, credit the Bulldogs for making sure it stayed that way on the final drive.
Tennessee's offense had 361 yards on just 58 plays (UT was averaging 79 plays per game coming in). We ran for 213 yards, something you never thought you'd see in an SEC game with this team. We were 6 of 12 on third down. This is a really strong Tennessee offense.
But with every week, things like that seem to matter less and less. Because there is no doubt: time is almost up for Derek Dooley.
By itself, tonight would've been a tough one to take. The Vols turned it over twice, MSU didn't. The +13 time of possession and +22 advantage in total plays were huge for the Bulldogs and kept our offense off the field. And the defense played better by default because it didn't give up any 70 yard plays, but is still such a liability at times. It sucks to lose a game like this in any year, especially after an off week.
But in this year, it's even worse. Derek Dooley cannot afford to lose to Mississippi State, plain and simple. And no matter how close we may think we're getting, there are only so many grains of sand in the hourglass. And the only way to put sand back in or maybe one day even flip the thing back over is to win. And that seems to be one thing Derek Dooley can't do.
The path of fired coaches is paved with close losses. Mike Shula lost four by one possession in 2006. Ron Zook lost four by one possession in 2004. Tommy Tuberville lost four by one possession in 2008. And all three had done way more than Derek Dooley has done long before their time ran out.
It's not complicated. There's still some sand left, but it's crimson and garnet and really hard to get out of your shoes. If Derek Dooley and these Vols can finally find a way to breakthrough in either of the next two weeks, great for Derek Dooley and for Tennessee. I'll be there Saturday with my orange on.
But if not, I think it'll be time to move on.
I've argued for patience and wanted Dooley to be the guy openly and passionately. For years. But you have to win football games, period. And there's not much time left.