Derek Dooley will end his first season in Knoxville without a signature win, and as we feared when it happened, the emotional highpoint of the season will remain the sixty seconds of false hope we enjoyed in Baton Rouge. But signature wins and emotional highpoints are more important to the fans than the program - what's important to the program is the opportunity to make real progress now, not later.
We're exactly where the majority of us thought we'd be right now: 3-6 with a young team against a brutal schedule that just got a little easier. What we've known since the summer is about to come true on Saturday: the most important game of this season was always most likely to be this one.
This is the one that will determine not only whether Tennessee's quest for bowl eligibility lives to see another week, but also whether this program can build any real momentum for the future. If the Vols finish 3-9 or 4-8, we'll call Dooley's first year a wash, and most of us will understand that General Neyland probably wouldn't have done much better. We'll go through the offseason with a general hope that things will get better...because they have to, right?
But if Tennessee can win out, it's more than just the bowl game. The extra practice is worth more than the Music City or Liberty Bowl. And in a larger sense, the momentum Dooley and the Vols can build would be the most valuable prize of all. If Tennessee finishes 6-6, we'll go through the offseason with a specific hope that things will get better...because we'll have seen it start to happen.
Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt, and that's a game Tennessee should win. Kentucky has fallen to the Vols 25 years in a row, and I'm more than ready to use "I'll believe it when I see it" quite liberally in two weeks. Ole Miss is the first and most important step to progress. Lose on Saturday, and we're home for the holidays and thinking about next year - because for the reasons we just mentioned, beating Vanderbilt and Kentucky for a 5-7 finish won't inspire much confidence. But win on Saturday, and we've got a chance to end on a real run, with real momentum that can make a real difference in this program. Plain and simple, to make this year matter, the Vols have to beat Ole Miss.
So...what'll it take to get the job done on Saturday?
Tyler Bray, Chapter 2
If the second half at South Carolina was the prologue, which featured both the best and worst of what our young quarterback could be, last week was Chapter 1. And it was the best of times, because it's always the best of times when the opponent is Memphis State.
The good news for Tyler is that while anyone would be a step up this week, it's not at all the same sort of challenge Matt Simms faced from start one to start two. Ole Miss has a better pass defense than Memphis...but not by much.
Tiger High is 116th nationally in pass defense. The Rebels are 86th...but here's what they've given up against SEC opponents not named Vanderbilt:
- Mike Hartline: 27 of 46, 300 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
- Greg McElroy: 17 of 25, 219 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
- Ryan Mallett/Tyler Wilson: 16 of 29, 267 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
- Cam Newton: 18 of 24, 209 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
This doesn't include the 32 of 42, 390 yard 4 TD performance Ryan Colburn of Fresno State put up on them. If you're a decent quarterback, their defense is there to be taken advantage of. Yeah, Ole Miss is 11th nationally in sacks...but let's also point out that 14 of their 25 sacks this year came against LA-Lafayette, Fresno State, and Tulane. In SEC play their defense has nine sacks in five games; the Vols have eight sacks in five SEC games. So while Tennessee's offensive line can make any pass rush look good, Ole Miss has an inflated number in that department.
Their offensive numbers, however, are not inflated, and neither is Jeremiah Masoli's importance to the team. After struggling early, the longer Masoli has been in the system, the more efficient the Rebels have become. After being frustrated by Kentucky and Alabama, Ole Miss went off for 512 yards at Arkansas and 407 against Auburn; Masoli accounted for 425 yards of offense against the Hogs.
The Vols' own defensive struggles suggest we're in for a shootout at high noon. Tyler Bray will obviously have to move the Vols up and down the field, but he also needs to play a clean game - Tennessee will need all the scoring opportunities they get, and he can't afford mistakes that kill drives and turn the ball over. The opponent is better and the need to score points is greater...how will Tyler respond?
Along those lines...
How much better does Tyler Bray make Tauren Poole?
As much as we find comfort in looking to the future, I'll say this: the Vols are going to miss being able to put Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker and a freshman of your choice on the field at the same time in the passing game. It's a great time to get started if you're Tyler Bray, so you can lean on those guys while your build your own confidence.
Poole is also part of that picture, which means the Vols really have very capable playmakers at all the skill positions right now. It's been overshadowed because the Vols are 3-6, but Poole can easily get to 1,000 yards this season - he's at 729 through nine games, and averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
But we've also seen Poole become more involved in the passing game with Bray at the helm - Poole had only 10 catches in the Vols' first seven games, but caught 4 passes from Bray in 5 quarters between South Carolina and Memphis; Bray also went to Rajion Neal and David Oku once each during that span. When asked about why he struggled to complete only 1 of his final 8 passes at Memphis, Bray said he was trying to make the big throw too often, and should've checked down more to Poole.
So for Tauren, there's at least the promise that everything about Tyler Bray is good for Tauren Poole - more opportunities in the passing game for Poole, and hopefully more success in the passing game overall leading to more success for Poole running the football.
The Ole Miss run defense has been good at stopping the run when it's been their priority; they held Alabama to 100 yards on 34 carries. But against Auburn and Arkansas, they gave up more than 7 yards per carry and got lit up for 343 on the ground against the Tigers.
With Bray, does Tennessee have the ability to force defenses out of the box? Can Bray and Poole ensure that the Vols can no longer be forced to play one-dimensionally?
Daniel Lincoln's Encore
All signs point to the senior making his return this week. Our relationship had its ups and downs, and we couldn't wait to leave him for someone younger and more promising. But while Michael Palardy has shown plenty of growing pains, Lincoln went 7 for 7 before getting hurt. And after Palardy missed an extra point and kicked off out of bounds back to back last week, we've never been happier to see #26.
Again: Tennessee cannot afford to give away points in this game, and cannot afford to miss scoring opportunities. Hopefully the Vols won't need touchdowns every drive, but I doubt we have the luxury of missed field goals against this bunch. Hopefully Lincoln hasn't lost anything, physically or mentally, from the form he showed us earlier this year.
Defense: Make a play
I'm not asking for an instant transformation or a miracle. I know the Vols give up almost 400 yards per game, and I know the Vols have given up 35.5 points per game in their six losses. I don't know what number the Vol offense is going to have to hit to win on Saturday - is it 28? 30? 40?
But when a defense is struggling, you have to make plays here and there to negate the advantage. Tennessee had a chance to beat LSU because the defense forced four turnovers. Tennessee had a chance to beat South Carolina because the defense forced field goals and Nick Reveiz made a pick in the end zone.
Tennessee's defense has given up ten touchdowns of 25+ yards this year. It's who we are: we're young, we're undisciplined, we get tired, and we make mistakes. Given all the factors, odds are good that Ole Miss will hurt us with a big play or two on Saturday.
But while we can't realistically ask the defense to suddenly stop giving up the big play, we can hope that they continue to make enough big plays of their own to stem the tide. Again, Masoli has gotten better: he threw four interceptions in his first three games, but has only three in the last six.
Both defenses struggle to create turnovers - Ole Miss has 13, the Vols have 16 but that's inflated by competition - but in a game like this, one can really make a difference. So in summary...
The team who makes the most big plays, or the team who makes the fewest mistakes?
It may look like a shootout, walk like a shootout, and talk like a shootout...but this isn't two great offenses going toe to toe. This is two teams with a few talented pieces and promising QBs on offense, both trying to make up for glaring deficiencies on defense. There will be points...but there will also be mistakes. If the Vols want to win, it's most important for Tyler Bray to minimize his mistakes, and the Vol defense to create just enough of them on the other end. I expect a wild, crazy, frustrating, and exciting football game...and for Derek Dooley, it's never been more important to come out on the right end.