Derek Dooley is now in his third year as the coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Thus far, he has never been able to open any year with a 3-0 record.
In each of the past three seasons, the team’s year has begun with the first weekend in September and with a victory. Each year the team has looked promising, boasting elite-level talent at several positions on the football field. This year specifically, led by hotshot junior quarterback Tyler Bray tossing deep balls to NFL-bound wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, the program’s SEC East championship drought looked like it just might come to an end.
However, it has been after the first couple of games in each of the last seven seasons that the Volunteers’ high hopes have been sent tumbling back down to earth.
In each of the last seven seasons, it has been against the Florida Gators that Tennessee’s student-athletes have stumbled mightily.
It has been on the “Third Saturday in September”, in each of the last three years of Dooley’s tenure that things have begun to unravel for his program.
On Saturday, fans, players and coaches alike all had to share in Dooley’s familiar, sinking feeling as he watched a 14-10 halftime lead evaporate right before his eyes.
“I thought we had things going pretty good, and then it kind of started. We had a nice drive in the third quarter; we came out and went 89 yards in 12 plays to go ahead. We stalled them on a fake punt, then got a groundie … and we had a lot of mistakes defensively. They got No.8 (Trey Burton) in the wildcat. We didn’t get the check, gave up a huge play there. Then they ran a couple of zone reads and just gutted us. You know, we just didn’t play very well there. We ran out of juice a little bit on the perimeter late in the game. Maybe we should have rolled those guys a little earlier in the game.”
Neither Dooley nor Florida coach Will Muschamp had beaten a ranked team in their respective coaching tenures. Thus, with the Gators coming into this game ranked at No. 18 nationally and UT at No. 23, something had to give.
One of these two unproven coaches was going to come out of the weekend with a victory over a ranked opponent for the very first time, was going to boast a 3-0 record on the year, and even enjoy a leg up in the race for the SEC East championship.
However, and unfortunately for Dooley, something indeed had to give, but it was not so much the final score that did not turn out in his favor, although obviously that turned out to be the case in Florida’s 37-20 victory.
Rather, the something that gave turned out to be the Vols’ mental toughness.
“We were shell-shocked a little … We hadn’t given up anything like that. Those are just enormous plays in a game.”
Bray, advertised as one of the premiere arms in the nation’s premiere conference felt a little shell-shocked himself.
“I got sacked twice. I don’t think I’ve been sacked all season … We didn’t respond well. We knew that we were going to be the ones that stop us. We just fell apart.”
For the Tennessee faithful, so desperate to scream Rocky Top from the top of their lungs, to celebrate a victory over the Orange and Blue following what is now eight straight defeats, watching their football players fall apart was just another in a long line, nearly a decade, of heartbreaking letdowns for their program.
Watching Bray get hit, get rattled and throw a late-game interception was simply par for the course for 102,455 orange and white-clad fans to have to suffer through.
Dooley wanted to give his fans a better show. He wanted his players to step up and draw the types of deafening cheers the citizens of Knoxville had grown so accustomed to over the mid-to-late ‘90’s. Instead, he was forced yet again, as he had the past two seasons, to heap praise on the Gators.
“We thought we could go toe-to-toe with them for four quarters, yes. There’s no excuses. We didn’t get it done. Give Florida credit. They did what they needed to do. I don’t know what else to say. We didn’t get it done.”
That sickening feeling of watching the members of Orange and Blue nation celebrating on their orange and white checkerboard endzones?
All too familiar to Dooley and the Volunteers faithful.