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
- 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 phase...it's just hard to see.