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What's the worst that can happen in an eight point loss?

Because I would submit Saturday night as the answer.

The distance between the way we felt at halftime and the way we feel now is, uh, far.  And what makes it worse for all involved is the way Tennessee looked against Cincinnati just four weeks ago.

I'm sure that sentence says a lot about where we are as a program - "Man, remember when we beat Cincinnati?  Those were good times." - but there's some real truth in there.  The only thing worse than watching your team struggle and then knowing it's going to get worse due to injury is doing both of those things after having gotten just a small taste of what your team could've been.

But, to use the phrase everyone loves the most, it is what it is.  Injuries are a part of football.  You can subscribe to that whole, "Woe is us, we're cursed, how much longer must we suffer" thing, but honestly, I'm tired of it.

So let's deal with what's worth being upset about, what's not, and where we go from here. 

Hit The Reset Button

Forget the SEC East.  Forget 8-4.  This season just became last season.

In August, I felt like 8-4 was a realistic goal.  In September, I thought we were going to beat Florida.  And at halftime last night, I thought we were going to be in the hunt for Atlanta.

But before all of that, if you'd asked me what I thought our record would be without Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Herman Lathers, and Janzen Jackson, I would've said 5-7.

Thankfully, we already beat Cincinnati.  But now with Matt Simms under center, the goals return to what they were the last time he started:  get bowl eligible.  Is this Tennessee team, led by Simms, good enough to beat MTSU, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, and get back to Christmas in Nashville (because you're crazy if you think the Music City Bowl will ever pass up Tennessee the way they sold tickets last year)?

I feel like the answer to that isn't definitely yes, but exists somewhere in the maybe-to-probably range.  No Tennessee team in our lifetimes has been expected to lose to Vandy or Kentucky or a Sun Belt school, and this one shouldn't be the exception.  Get to 6-6, get back to a bowl game, and hopefully win it with Tyler Bray's thumb.  And if Matt Simms is able to pull off any other victory along the way, God bless that young man.  We'll be pulling for him.

We just ripped the band-aid off our expectations for this season.  And it hurt something awful last night.  Maybe the Vols would've gone 6-6 with a healthy Tyler Bray.  But there's no way to know now, and absolutely no point in speculating on it.  Matt Simms is the present.  Embrace it.

This is the part where I also want to write, "You can't hold anything that happens this year against Dooley."  And starting next week, that's probably true - I'm not sure what coach in America could pull off an upset with the team that currently exists.  You can't judge Dooley on what he does without four of his best five players - and you tell me if that's an exaggeration or not - and since it was also unfair to judge him based on what he did last season, you've got an incredibly small sample size left to work with.

But see, here's the one thing that really bothers me.  In any other year, if we lost our starting quarterback, we'd all just say, "Okay, we'll just run more."  This year? 

The Questions We'll Be Asking For The Next Eleven Months

These are the fundamental problems with Tennessee's football team, and they are really bad problems to have in the SEC:

  • The Vols can't run the ball against any defense of any merit
  • The Vols can't get any pressure on any quarterback of merit with just the front four
The second problem isn't new; Fulmer and Kiffin also knew it well.  I would submit to you that the problem with Georgia's deep balls last night wasn't the secondary's sole responsibility; Tennessee played aggressive against the run with their safeties up much of the night, and it worked - Isaiah Crowell had just 51 yards, and Georgia was held to 3.7 yards per carry.  But when you do that, you leave yourself open to the deep ball.  Aaron Murray isn't an idiot, and he wasn't throwing to guys who run a five flat.  When the Vols couldn't even make Murray sweat in the pocket?  He did what good quarterbacks will continue to do to UT's defense.

How is that problem going to get better?  Don't know.

The run game is atrocious, and any defense of what we've seen against Florida and Georgia is really, really a stretch.  I don't know if it's Poole or the line or both.  I just know it's awful to begin with, and then we made it worse with ill-advised toss sweeps and snaps over the quarterbacks head.

How is that problem going to get better?  Don't know.  Marlin Lane had seven carries for eight yards.  He's not the magic wand.

Unless something incredibly drastic and unexpected happens the rest of this season in the run game, we're going to spend the entire offseason wondering.  As much as we all want to believe in the mythical 2012 team - and as much as we've seen from Bray and Rogers and Hunter (and Mychal Rivera, whose performance against Georgia will get overshadowed, and that's unfortunate) - if Tennessee continues to literally go backward in the ground game against SEC competition this year, there's nothing tangible we'll see between now and next fall to make us believe it's going to be any different.  We'll do the idiot optimist stuff and convince ourselves it's going to be better.  But in the back of our minds, we'll be left to wonder.

Who are the new faces on the offensive or defensive lines that are going to change this?  Don't know.

Those two issues are worth being upset about.

What's not worth being upset about
  • Not going for it on 4th and 15 with eight minutes left.  4th and 1?  Sure.  4th and 5?  Sure.  4th and 15?  Give me a break.  Punting the ball was the absolute right call.
  • Matt Simms' play.  Simms has played before and isn't immune to criticism - if he struggles going forward, we'll have the right to say so.  But don't kill the guy for what he did in two minutes on the fly - which included getting us in the end zone.  Simms ain't Crompton.  He can manage.
  • The defense as a whole.  The "our defense sucks!" stuff is overreaction today, and people need to remember that as the week goes along.  That was Georgia's lowest point total of the season.  The big plays are frustrating, and the inability to sack the quarterback is very concerning.  But this defense doesn't suck.  Not even close.  Are they good enough to carry an offense that's just become the greatest concern?  We'll find out.
  • Special teams AS A WHOLE.  Believe me, last night in Neyland Stadium I did this.  You get an extra point blocked, we all go, "Here we go again!" and use words like "unacceptable".  But today, I've also thought about Devrin Young, and the punt we downed at the three yard line, and the fact that Palardy hit a big field goal at the end of the first half, and the one he missed was from 51 yards.  And most importantly, our kick coverage, which is 12th in the nation.  Our special teams play is frustrating because we do one stupid thing per game with alarming accuracy.  But there has been improvement in that's just hard to see.
Put Derek Dooley's chair back in the freezer.  Now.

Here's the worst that can happen from last night:  this ridiculous notion that our head coach is on a seat that could be described with any degree of warmth.

My problem isn't so much with what the media say.  They're going to write stories that generate attention.  Even among a number of local media who are UT alums or are self-professing UT fans, when you work in the media, it's your job to be unbiased (or at least less biased).  It's also your job to get people to read and/or listen to what you have to say.  Some will antagonize.  Others will use it as a conversation starter.  That's their job.  It's your choice to read.

What I do have a problem with is the number of UT fans who might agree with this idea.

You know who left first last night?  The section that was quickest to empty out?  To no surprise, it was the lower level sideline behind UT's bench:  the big money donors (and if you sit there and you stayed, well done, and I'm definitely not addressing you).  It drives me absolutely insane that those who have the most power and influence among the fanbase are almost always the quickest to bail out.  The Vols were never down more than 14 points last night and Georgia never took a knee.  It was a situation that UT fans never, ever would've left early under in any previous year.  I'm not talking about getting beat by 20+ against great teams.  I'm talking about a game where the outcome was technically in doubt on every single play.

And yet, they left.  They'll be the first to bail on Cuonzo Martin too, just wait.

And so when we start with this, "Uh oh, UT fans are apathetic again, we have to do something!" nonsense?  How about instead we call these people on their inability to support their team.  If you left midway through the fourth quarter last night, shame on you.  Tennessee deserves better.

My favorite tweet of the last 24 hours was this one from Jayson Swain - his part is only two words, but is this what it's coming to for some of us?  You want Urban Meyer(s)?  Hey, I'd love Vince Lombardi.

If you're out there campaigning for someone else to be our head coach right now - and I don't care who it is - I question what you've learned in the last four years.  Because that's the answer, right?  Four coaches in five years?  Let's judge the guy who walked into Kiffin's mess in 2010 then lost four of his five best players to injury in 2011 - which is FIVE GAMES old - and say he can't get it done.  That sounds reasonable.

There.  Are.  No.  Quick.  Fixes.

Look, I'm the most optimistic UT fan you know.  And even I would tell you that the reason we thought UT could get to Atlanta this year is because the East was down, not because the Vols would suddenly return to their late 90s selves.  It cannot be about getting back.  It's always about moving forward...and if you look between the injuries, I believe this team is still doing that right now.

You think Dooley's on the hot seat?  Stop being part of the problem.  Start being part of the solution.  Get behind Derek Dooley, and get used to it.  Because unless we've all gone completely insane - and at this point, I wouldn't rule it out - he's going to be around here awhile.  At least long enough to fairly figure out what he can actually do on a reasonable timetable.  And we're not going to get that answer this season.

What are we going to get the rest of this season?  I have no idea...but I'll be there Saturday to find out.

Go Vols.