All the talk surrounding Rocky Top for weeks has been centered around football head coach Derek Dooley and his future — or lack thereof — in Knoxville. I have jumped on the train as well and put in my two cents — see my column from Monday — but with an upcoming game against Vanderbilt on Saturday there is just as much for the players to prove as Dooley.
I have already said that I think the loss to Missouri last Saturday was the death note for the Dooley era in Tennessee, but the man still has something to prove.
To prove he can motivate his team with a bowl bid on the line, he can rally the troop after an 0-6 conference start and he can keep players and staff focused with media rumors swirling.
This is big because it will determine where he can end up once his tenure in Knoxville is over. It's pretty much a rule that if you're fired as a head coach — for poor performance, not off the field issues — you don't get hired as a head coach somewhere else as your next job. Dooley will probably end up as an offensive coordinator or some position on the offensive side of the ball — he's been both a wide receivers coach and tight end coach. In essence these final two, possibly three weeks, are an audition for him.
But for the players it is more important to come out and prove themselves. Dooley and the rest of his staff are going to take the heat for the Volunteers' woes the past few seasons, but the players are to blame as well for miscues.
Tennessee had chances to win against Georgia late, but three Tyler Bray turnovers on the final three drives killed that dream. Against Mississippi State, Tennessee was in the ball game but the defense's inability to get off the field — the Bulldogs were 2-of-2 on fourth down — and an ill-timed fumble by Devrin Young during the UT comeback. And against South Carolina the Volunteers played arguably their best game of the year but couldn't make the plays on the final drive to win the game.
These are all player-driven problems. I don't think anyone except the diehard Dooley haters with blinders on to block out the facts that some of the problems are with the players would disagree.
There is as much for them to prove as for Dooley. A lot of the Tennessee roster — mostly on the offensive side of the ball — has NFL potential.
The offensive line is arguably the best in the country. Bray is a top quarterback prospect and after a rough start in SEC play has turned it on in recent weeks and the wide receiver combo of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson are two electric playmakers on the outside.
This is just as important for these players to prove they can fight through adversity and get the job done when things aren't going their way. That they can make the big play when the game is on the line, something each has failed to do at some point during this season.
Tennessee is fighting for its season. The Vols have to win the next two weeks, the same scenario as last season. Will they get the job done this year? Players and coaches alike have to step up and show they are more like the Tennessee of old than the Tennessee of late.
— Austin Bornheim is a senior in Journalism and Electronic Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.