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Is It Time To Start Worrying?

There have been games Tennessee has played this year where the sheer magnitude of a devastating injury to a player arguably affected the outcome. In others, the obvious gulf between the Vols' talent and their opponent's was the sole reason for a loss.

Last night was about coaching.

From deciding to play a true freshman quarterback obviously not ready to play, to play-calling, to a ridiculous use of time outs, to an ill-advised onsides kick to start the second half, to fourth-down failures, everything Derek Dooley decided failed. At a point, obviously you've got to have the players to execute the plays [Da'Rick Rogers catching the bomb comes to mind, as does the offensive line blocking on the power after Prentiss Waggner's interception return, as does Justin Worley's interceptions], but the coach takes the brunt of the criticism, and last night, he deserved it.

Let me clarify up front:  You're reading someone who still has both feet firmly on the Dooley bandwagon. Even after last night's utter debacle in a 14-3 loss to a shell of a South Carolina team, there isn't any way the second-year Tennessee football coach should be on the hot seat. He should not be judged by what happens this season regardless of talent, and especially with the injuries to Herman Lathers, Justin Hunter, Tyler Bray and the departure of Janzen Jackson.

But the fact of the matter is Dooley is putting himself in a precarious position to be judged later.

Everybody who pulls for Tennessee can sit here and say, "Well, Dooley shouldn't lose his job no matter what happens the rest of the season." That is accurate, and barring a monumental embarrassment the rest of the way, I don't think he's in danger of it. But Dooley's failed decisions now will have a direct result on his future.

Stay with me here. Let's say Tennessee only beats MTSU, Vanderbilt and Kentucky [not looking as easy as we expected], goes 6-6 and loses the bowl game again. That's two consecutive 6-7 seasons with ZERO quality wins. Now, next year, the Vols maybe don't have the "dream season" we all hope, and Dooley only wins 8 or 9, if that. What happens? You begin to look back at this year and last year for signs that things are on the right track, and there are none. You look ahead at a team perhaps losing Hunter and Bray to the NFL and wonder if this is the right regime, after all.

Games like last night's and the 20-12 setback against Georgia are resume games. If you win them, that can be some positives to go on a coach's body of work. Lose them, and the unrest within the program and the fanbase begins.The seeds are planted. Whether it's out in the open or not, we've all thought it, wondered it aloud or to ourselves. There probably isn't a single fan this morning that at least doesn't have an inkling of a worry in the back of their minds that Dooley is the answer to our program's wandering in the wilderness.

I know I'm concerned. I started to get worried when the team completely crumbled after James Stone's poor snap-fumble against Georgia that effectively opened the UGA onslaught. That only grew when our team didn't just lost but rolled over in the second halves against phenomenal teams LSU and Alabama. Most of me believes that has to do with the superior talent of our opponents, but there's no excuse for UT being so flat in those third and fourth quarters.

And now we have added to the sample set an embarrassing loss to a South Carolina team that was terrible on offense. The Vols' defense played incredibly well again, with the exception of a beautiful, perfectly executed 99-yard touchdown drive by the Gamecocks that chewed up essentially the entire third quarter.

But how did Dooley combat those things in our favor -- SC's offensive struggles and our own defensive growth?

He called an onsides kick to start the second half that, while it didn't destroy us, was completely baffling and started the second half with our back against the wall again. He dialed up numerous aggressive calls on fourth downs, after turnovers, etc. that put a ton of pressure on a young, inexperienced football team that has never proven it can make game-changing plays and is emotionally full of fissures and just waiting for a way to collapse.

Most confusingly -- and I tried to buy into it last week when I had my concerns -- he elected to burn the redshirt of Justin Worley, a quarterback C-L-E-A-R-L-Y not ready to play in the Southeastern Conference, to see his first action against the nation's top pass defense. Worley wasn't pitiful, but he didn't get any help. However, when the Vols' defense created two potentially game-turning turnovers, Worley gave the ball right back to the 'Cocks on a great, acrobatic interception by former UT commit DJ Swearinger and then, late in the game, a highly questionable throw into double-coverage that was intercepted by Stephon Gilmore.

I am not carrying the torch for Matt Simms after his less-than-stellar couple of years in orange, but it was clear to me much earlier than it was clear to our coaches that we needed a senior in there over a rattled freshman. It's stupid to say we'd definitely have scored touchdowns on those two short fields if Simms was under center, but it couldn't have been any worse than what we got. Still, that's a hindsight thing, even though electing to play Worley at all and consequently handicapping our offense from the word "Go" can and probably should be questioned.

Even if it shouldn't be, I am.

It's not the first time I've been puzzled by a Dooley decision. It is, however, the first time since the 13 men on the field at LSU last season I believe one of his mistakes was the difference in a win and a loss. I think we win that game last night with Simms playing in hindsight. I fretted over all week, "What if we pull the redshirt and Worley clearly isn't ready? How long will it take Dooley to swallow pride, put in Simms and give us the chance to win?" The answer, unfortunately, was too long.

We're fans, and we question. It's what we do. It's what I'm doing.

Dooley had a perfect opportunity to check off the first box on his resume last night, and he failed. This team is bad right now, and the coaching is bad now, too. I can love and support my Vols, love and support my coach, and be completely comfortable saying that. I can look around a half-empty Neyland Stadium as the clock is ticking down late last night and wonder, "What would this be like had we never fired Fulmer?" Not saying it shouldn't have happened; only wondering what would his program looked like now. It could NOT be worse than what we've endured. No way. You can admit that you've thought of it or not. But I'm the one writing it, so I'm the one who's going to get hammered for it.

In closing, this is not a fire Dooley column. Far, far from it. It's not meant to crush our wills or rally the rebels with the torches and pitchforks. It isn't meant to be a scream to the driver of the Dooley bandwagon to pull over at the next stop and let me off. It's simply an admission that I'm now concerned. I think last night was strike one for Dooley in my book. I called my dad after the game, and there's no bigger Dooley lover in the world, and he started to express concern for the first time as well. I knew then that I wasn't being my old, irrational self.

There were numerous people around me last night in the stands who were muttering, wondering aloud if Dooley was in over his head. Even with the program on more solid footing than it has been in at least four years -- in recruiting, in administration, in cohesion, in off-the-field behavior -- none of it matters when you're 3-5 and 0-5 in the SEC. Bless Dooley's heart for having to endure all the team-crippling injuries we've faced this year, but there were still multiple ways to beat Georgia and South Carolina, and he couldn't find them.

That, by itself, is reason to write this. We need for Dooley to be the answer. We don't need to have to go through YET ANOTHER coaching search after next season. We need for Dooley to start making progress and for our program to turn the corner. We need for a coach who everybody loves to listen to and support be one who we love to see stomping the sidelines. He embraces Tennessee. He gets us. He loves the school and our tradition, and we love him for it. He just has to start winning soon. Defend him all you want, and nobody will fault you for it because we're fans.

I've said all season the same line: "I love every single thing about Derek Dooley. I just wish we knew if he could coach football." Every week, it's the same story: We still haven't seen any signs that he can.