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So Far, So Hard

This is taking a lot out of us all.

When pride and excitement used to be measured in championships and now hangs by the pathetic thread of hope that a bowl game awaits us at the end of the reverse rainbow 2011 [a season that's hopefully high on both ends and low in the middle...] it makes life difficult.

Game-by-game, we watch. Game-by-game, we hope. Game-by-game, we're disappointed.

Welcome to Tennessee Volunteers football and the Hellish Wait that consumes us all right now. We as college football fans are not a patient people by nature. We've got too much pride that runs as deep as team colors, too many bragging-rights at stake when we enter our workplaces Monday morning, too much excitement wrapped into every season that we're hurt and angered when unrealistic expectations forged in years of success aren't met.

Games like today's 38-7 loss to LSU demoralize you. When a team you beat everywhere but the scoreboard last season bludgeons you during a year when you're supposed to be improved, all your hope can be sucked dry. Playing a juggernaut like LSU will empty you.

Now, forget hope. Next week's Alabama game may just suck the life completely out of you if you let it. You can't. These games were never going to be wins this year. We're just too far behind in talent already, too shallow of experience, and that's before the injuries depleted us of any realistic chances we had.

Do not get crazy over unrealistic expectations and get pissed when we fail to meet them. That's just setting yourself up for disappointment and setting your team up for failure. It's OK to be angry, Vols fans. It's not OK to be ridiculous.

Don't be mad that we were out-classed and out-talented today. Be mad that we've failed when wins were attainable. I have anger and frustration for the Vols tonight, and that has nothing to do with the 38-7 blood-letting against LSU.

My anger is fueled by watching mediocrity unfurl before my eyes in the late games tonight -- Florida getting beaten by a bad Auburn team and Georgia struggling to beat Vanderbilt. My frustration is kindled by the fact that either our team and coaches weren't good enough in two winnable games and, in some cases, our best players weren't around to make a difference.

What we're going to have to watch every week isn't good football, but it also isn't the football team our coaches prepared to coach all offseason. Herman Lathers is still out. Janzen Jackson plays for McNeese State. Justin Hunter will spend the season on crutches. Tyler Bray stands shoulder pad-less on the sideline with his broken thumb wrapped.

It sucks. It's not fair. But it's football. Just look around at the rest of the SEC East if you want to whine.

I know that Florida Now isn't Florida Month Ago. They're a different team without John Brantley. But I'm still not sure a Brantley-led Florida team should've jumped on UT 30-7 before we finally woke up. I'm not sure this Gators team should be 10 points better than the Vols. I know that Vanderbilt has a good defense, but that Commodores team has put up four touchdowns on a UGA team the Vols -- with Bray for much of the game no-less -- mustered just 12 points against. I'm not sure that UGA should have beaten Tennessee.

But Florida did. And Georgia did. Now, here they are and here we are.

I think a lot of folks probably saw this record coming for UT at this point in the season, but given all the injuries and extenuating circumstances surrounding the SEC East, a 3-3 record just seems 10 times more frustrating. Especially looking at UT being 0-3 yet again this season in conference. It's not something we should ever get used to seeing, and it'll be at least 0-4 after we play the Crimson Cyborgs next week.

I think it's why Georgia hurt so much last week. Losing to the Dawgs felt like losing three games. Because we knew it would be a long time before we won again. Watching us run the football against the nation's fourth-ranked rush defense today makes me wonder where it's been. It ticks me off at our coaches for not finding the things that worked today in the games where it would have actually mattered. And it makes me wonder why it is we can find positives out of every loss but yet not find enough to make them wins. It's the same old questions I've asked myself every week for the past five seasons.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm still on the Big Orange Dooley.

Do I think he's the answer? I certainly do right now. He's stabilizing the program, recruiting well, re-stocking the roster and changing the culture around the program.

Do I think he's the long-term answer? That's something I can't say right now. There are too many game-management issues, too much discombobulation on the sidelines, too few halftime adjustments and mental lapses for me to definitively say "This is because we're young and inexperienced," or "This is because of coaching."

I definitely believe depth played -- and continues to play -- a significant role in the fact that we're getting ripped apart in the second half against good teams. But I can't help to think that fight and heart somehow takes over at a point and there's the prevailing belief when a team collectively says, "Screw being tired. Screw the fact that we're not as talented as these guys. We can BEAT this team!" And that hasn't happened yet under Dooley.

That's me being as honest as I can be. We just don't know yet. And that's fine. This team has never won a big game under Dooley, and he's never won a big game as a head coach. Those are the scary, stripped-down facts, and it's why our wait is ever more excruciating -- because we don't know what we're waiting on exactly.

Dooley is our guy, and we've got to stick with him and hope. But hold those hopes until week-after-next, because all the hope in the world isn't going to halt what's going to happen in Tuscaloosa next week.

In the meantime, until we reach way down as a football team and pull out that will to win, I'll continue to re-live a conversation I had with former Vols defensive end Xavier Mitchell last weekend before a pivotal Georgia game, and I'll wait and wait and wait until his words come true or we can find somebody else who will make them. Said Mitchell, [and I'm paraphrasing here, of course ...]:

"I like Dooley. But there has to be a point when this team and he as a coach breaks through."

"When I came to Tennessee, we had upperclassmen and we had a head coach who knew what it took to go on the road and beat Florida, knew what it took to beat Georgia, to beat Miami, to beat Alabama. Because they'd done it before. They told us how we needed to act during the game week, how we needed to prepare, how we needed to react to adversity during a game and win that game. We didn't always win, but we knew how to."

"Nobody on this team has won any big games. These coaches haven't won any games. There comes a point in time where they've got to get that win, man. It's tough to do. All it takes is one. But until they do, they won't know how. They've got to re-learn what it takes to be a Tennessee Volunteer."

Those are not my words. But perhaps truer words have never been spoken. This team HAS to break though at some point, or we have to find somebody who can. For us looking at the possibility of, "Well, we just need to beat MTSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and we'll go to a bowl game ..." that may be the best we can do, but it'll be yet another wasted year if that's all that happens.

Forget next week. But South Carolina -- a Gamecocks team that recently dismissed its senior quarterback, has a spotty sophomore starter there now and is now facing an uncertain future of All-World running back Marcus Lattimore -- looms winnable. There's also a scary-but-not-unbeatable Arkansas team ahead. Either one of those wins would be Dooley's biggest and would put this team on track to take a step forward as a football program in a year that looks lost to injuries.

So, keep watching. Keep hoping. Keep getting disappointed when we lose -- don't lose that. Losing should NOT be acceptable, even when we're used to it. There's still something to play for THIS year. There is plenty of reason left to hope.

It just starts after the Alabama game.