Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE
Rest easy, my son: You don't have to cheer for the Vols to lose on Saturday.
Aren't we making this harder than it really is?
Granted, nothing has come easy for the University of Tennessee in about a decade. But the 2012 football season and the fate of Derek Dooley seem to have entered the gray before the gray.
The real gray area coming into the season was supposed to be 7-5. 8-4 would be the best season at this proud institution in five years, 6-6 against this schedule and you've got no excuse and at least one horrific loss. 8-4 and the man stays, 6-6 and he almost certainly does not. But 7-5 was where we especially didn't want to be, because 7-5 was complicated.
Still in late October, Dooley and the Vols still have a chance to finish 8-4. It's not a great chance or even a good one: South Carolina is a two touchdown favorite with plenty of offensive firepower; in any other year we might take solace in their ineptitude against the Gators last week, but at this point teams that don't go for 40 points and 400 yards against us are the exception, not the rule. Whether it's Akron or Alabama, this defense is an equal opportunity provider. And there are still zero reasons through seven full games to suggest it's going to get better.
I have undervalued Carolina all year for the simple fact that if Tennessee takes better care of the football, the Vols beat the Gamecocks in each of the last two seasons. But if we don't take care of the football again on Saturday, a repeat performance from last week is on tap.
There is no tangible evidence to suggest Tennessee will win this game. But if the Vols do, that win plus the strength of our November schedule would suggest an 8-4 finish is still very possible (and should be probable). There are a lot of dominoes still standing there, but it's not over yet. An argument based only in fairness suggests that a guy who walked into the mess Dooley inherited and finished with the best regular season since 2007 in year three gets to stick around for year four.
As we all know, of course, college football and life aren't fair. So I don't know what's going to happen to Derek Dooley.
What I do know is the largest gray area this week has surrounded Jon Gruden. It's a smoky gray, but no fire yet.
Let's take Chucky out of the equation for a second. If you remove his name from the board, I don't know that there is any other potential hire of that magnitude that's going to be in play for Tennessee right now. Especially not someone who is currently out of football the way Gruden is (and don't get me started on Bobby Petrino and the one billion reasons why it shouldn't be him that next wears the orange and white). Without a hire of Gruden's quality, the argument about Derek Dooley becomes even more cloudy. If things stay gray, who is worth pulling the trigger on at 7-5? What's the best long-term answer for Tennessee Football?
I have some thoughts on that, as I'm sure you do too. I'm holding them until after Saturday because as long as 8-4 is still on the table for this team, I think Dooley still has a fair shot.
However, can't we all agree that if Dave Hart and The Powers That Be at Tennessee are really going to pay Grudenesque money and are serious about pursuing someone on that level, does it really matter what Derek Dooley does at this point?
If (x 100) Gruden has been reached out to and led anyone wearing our shade of orange to believe it's on, I can't think it matters at all what Tennessee does on Saturday. If Gruden is going to say yes, it doesn't matter what else Derek Dooley says or does. I don't know who you trade a 7-5 Dooley for. I absolutely know you trade an 8-4 Dooley for Jon Gruden in a heartbeat.
Is any of this real? No clue. But what I do know is, there's no need for you to be conflicted about who to pull for on Saturday.
If Gruden is coming, he's coming no matter what Dooley does now. Even a win at South Carolina wouldn't put enough shine back in the orange pants to make anyone believe they wouldn't look better on a man who would redeem visors throughout East Tennessee. And if Gruden is coming, you'd still like to see this team end the year with positive momentum to help the process along for next season. It still matters how Tyler Bray plays, it still matters whether we win or lose.
And if Gruden isn't coming, then you want Tennessee to win. If Gruden isn't coming, I think 8-4 still saves Derek Dooley, 8-4 would still be a fair and rational argument for keeping him, and we could avoid another time of transition.
There will be plenty more to say if the Vols don't win on Saturday, regardless of what happens with Jon Gruden. But until there's fire with his smoke, Derek Dooley still has a chance to be our coach next season, and right now this Tennessee team has one last chance to get the one big win that's eluded all of them for so long.
You can cheer for Tennessee on Saturday with a clear conscience. None of us knows for sure what's coming next, but either way, a Tennessee victory would help it. And if we do somehow find a way to steal one in Columbia, I don't want to miss celebrating it because I'm worried it might cost us a big splash down the road. If we're truly splashing that big, Dooley's time is already up. If not, there's still hope for this season. Either way, let's win.