Only 378 days after their disappointing 16-14 loss in Baton Rouge, the Volunteers, injured and disheveled, have a chance to redeem a missed opportunity and show the Tigers what a team full of heart is capable of achieving.
As the team prepares to face LSU this Saturday, in the back of everyone’s mind is the lack of many key players, including (but not limited to), sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter and sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Bray. Head coach Derek Dooley knows the situation. He’s seen it before, but more importantly, he knows how to overcome it.
“This team we are playing this week — the fact that they are No. 1 in the country kind of says it all,” Dooley said. “They are good everywhere. They are tenacious on defense. It’s probably the best offense they have had there in several years: a physical, downhill running team and play action shots down the field. They are going to humiliate you if you don’t come ready to fight and that’s what we’ve got to do. We have a tough situation and we all know it but you have to go out there to play and compete. You have to show up and that’s what we are going to do so we move on.”
The mental challenge for the Vols will be just as difficult, if not more difficult, than the physical one. Dooley said the important goal for the team is to stay focused and not lose sight of the moment-to-moment tasks that ultimately achieve the win.
“I don’t have any doubts that Tennessee is going to be what Tennessee expects to be,” Dooley said. “But we also have to confront some tough, brutal facts that we are facing right now. Is it going to be tough? You’re dang right. But you’re presented with a set of circumstances every day and you can’t change what has happened in the past. You can’t worry about what might happen. You can’t say, ‘Well, this might happen if that.’ You can’t do any of that. You have to deal with the circumstances you are presented with and go after it the best you can. That is all you can do and never lose faith in the end of the story.”
The loss to LSU last year sparked from a series of blunders that should never have occurred. In a press conference after the loss, Dooley said it was time for the team to look in the mirror, take responsibility for the mistakes made and make sure they don’t happen again.
“I think the important thing to know is it’s not O.K. — and I told our team this — it’s not O.K. to lose,” Dooley said. “When you lose, you have to look in the mirror and say what can we do better to prevent it? There was certainly a lot of that. We can’t whine. We can’t complain. We can’t make excuses because you can never do that until you look at yourself in the mirror first. And that’s just part of being a man. That’s a part of life. When life doesn’t go your way, look in the mirror. Maybe I could have done something to change the outcome. That’s what we’re going to do.”
On the upside, senior quarterback Matt Simms has been looking forward to a rematch against the Tigers since the loss in 2010. The starting quarterback at the time, Simms was able to see first-hand the mistakes that cost his team the game, and Dooley said he is proud of Simms and feels he is ready to lead the team once more this Saturday.
“He brings a lot of leadership ability,” Dooley said. “He has been in the fire before. He has a real good command of the offense and he has prepared every week like he is a starter. This is his time and we will see how he does.”
Simms made it clear last year that if he could play any game against any team, he would choose LSU. The opportunity for him is huge, not only as he returns as starting quarterback, but as he faces old foes and heals old wounds.
“I think everyone kind of realizes that this isn’t my first rodeo,” Simms said. “I played in a lot of big games last year and obviously I’m not afraid to get hit. I’m just looking forward to it, looking forward to the experience. It’s a tough position for all of us but we just have to focus and win our first SEC game.”
Looking forward to the game, the competition can seem overwhelming, but looking back, Simms sees the potential of his team. He knows what has to be done and he knows that the team is at a place where it will take more heart than strength to face the déjá vu of the upcoming game.
“It definitely helps to know that we did perform well down there,” Simms said. “Then again, there were a lot of things we could have done a lot better. This year, we just have to refocus our energy and just make sure that we concentrate on the little details to beat a team like this.”