Sometimes, it's difficult for sports fans to deal in absolutes when their team is struggling; no fan wants to believe that their team is simply bad. Similarly, coaches always believe they can get things righted. There is always more hope, more chances, more time to get things turned around. For most coaches, however, there comes a time, a watershed moment, where the coach must plant their feet and find a way to win a game or risk losing their fan support and surrendering to apathy. This Saturday against Georgia is Derek Dooley's moment. This is Derek Dooley's last stand.
I know it's only one game and it's a game that Tennessee isn't expected to win. I understand that Georgia is favored at home by more than two touchdowns. I'm aware that fans requiring a win on the road against a top five team isn't necessarily a fair situation. However, in Dooley's third year at the helm of the Tennessee Vols, it's time for them to win a game against an SEC team not named Vanderbilt, Kentucky, or Ole Miss; Dooley is 0-18 in his career vs. ranked teams. It's time for them to stop fading in the fourth quarter; Tennessee has been outscored 149-26 in the second half of their last eight SEC games. It's time for them to compete with teams that Tennessee needs to compete with; Dooley is 0-12 vs Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, and South Carolina and has been outscored 395-157 in those games, or an average of 33-13 per game. It's no longer about youth and an empty roster. It's no longer about injuries to your best two players. It's no longer about fighting a chemistry issue that is blamed on your star wide receiver. Unfortunately for Dooley, it's about winning games, and with the Florida loss two weeks ago he has painted himself into a corner with his fan base.
Some of you might be thinking, so why is THIS game his last stand? Even if they lose to Georgia, if they beat Mississippi State and Alabama, won't everything be right with the world? Well, if Tennessee could find a way to beat Alabama, a lot of ills would be forgiven... but let's be realistic. We Tennessee fans, the author included, are a fickle bunch. Give us some hope, a shred of brightness at the end of the tunnel, and we'll run with you down that tunnel even if we know the light is probably an oncoming train. Tennessee fans put on for Tennessee two weeks ago; Tennessee people went all-in against Florida. To extend the poker analogy to the point of overkill, we were short-stacked and felt like we had drawn pocket kings so we put it all on the table. We couldn't lose, until Florida hit trip queens on the river and left us with very few chips. And against Akron, the crowd folded.
The point is, Tennessee fans are watching this game this week wondering if the team has a stand in them. We want some hope to take into the game against Alabama. If Dooley doesn't give us hope by beating Georgia, if he doesn't make a stand, Tennessee fans are going to vote with their feet and stay home in droves when Alabama comes to town. Neyland Stadium has a lot of seats, and Alabama has a lot of mouth-breathing, front-running, bandwagon-jumping, sister-marrying, tee-shirt alumni who will sell their EBT cards and take out title loans on their mobile homes to get into the stadium. The last time that happened, it was the death knell for a National Championship winning coach. Dooley won't survive that. To prevent that, he has to give the fans hope that he can beat a team that nobody thinks he should. To give the fans hope, he must prevail against Georgia this weekend.
When you really think about it, it would be a story-book plot; the embattled son of former great Georgia coach makes his stand in Athens and does what we all want him to do... what we all need him to do... what he has to do. Unfortunately, life rarely works out like it does in the story-books. The light is just about out. Dooley's tenure has been littered with collapses and an inability to handle adversity. I don't expect him to survive his last stand. But here's hoping.