As quickly as the chaotic victory, then defeat, of the Tennessee Volunteers came at the hands of the LSU Tigers on Saturday, criticism of Derek Dooley and Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox began tweeting up.
National sports media and some frustrated Volunteer fans came with quips about Dooley’s “13 man play." It did not help matters that just a week ago the Vols struggled to get enough men on the field on critical plays that nearly cost them vs. UAB.
It is true that Tennessee must figure out how to get the appropriate number of players on the field at a given time, but a review of the game’s film makes clear that this was not a matter of coaches who could not count.
As pointed out by Derek Dooley in his press conference on Monday, the final seconds of the game were a perfect storm of strange player substitutions by the Tigers and an inconsistent officiating crew that was not following a strict interpretation of the rule that allows for an opposing defense to get players set before a play begins.
Dooley stopped short of making excuses for his staff. “We didn’t do our part," said Dooley and for that reason the coach said he would make no complaints about officiating.
Quick triggered fans and media focused blame on Dooley for his young players' mistakes in trying to react in the final seconds of a buzzer-beating, high profile SEC road game. That's part of being the boss at a major program. A look at the bigger picture of the 2010 season tells another story.
In the first five weeks of the season, the Volunteers have played three Top 15 teams. In August media members and Vegas statisticians expected the Vols to be embarrassed in each of those games. Instead, in each instance, the Vols’ gameplan appeared solid despite their very limited personnel.
In each game, against Oregon, Florida, and LSU, the Vols put a scare in their high ranked opponent, steadily improving each time from a second half blowout against the Ducks to the heartbreaking loss on the road at Tiger Stadium on Saturday.
In those games the Vols have showed improving discipline with fewer penalties (Saturday’s final play notwithstanding). Though they haven’t shown explosiveness, the Tennessee offense has managed the game well and Matt Simms seems miles ahead of Jon Crompton at this point in the season last year in grasping the Tennessee offense. If he continues to improve and his protection gets better, the Vols could be very dangerous at the end of the season.
Momentum will eventually pass without a defining win, but so far, Dooley and his staff are defying expectations and sending the message that when Tennessee has enough time to recruit more quality players and develop the ones they have now, this team will be a force to reckon with.
A quick assessment of the current state of the SEC looks good for Tennessee. Georgia and Kentucky were picked to finish ahead of Tennessee but have suffered dismal starts, and Florida and South Carolina have been good but not been great. The door looks wide open for Dooley and the Vols to build a championship program in the next few seasons. Think Dooley isn’t working the phones to his Georgia recruiting connections in an attempt to flip nervous players committed to the Bulldogs who are concerned about UGA's lack of progress?
Despite preseason predictions that called for Tennessee to hit Rocky Bottom this year, through five games Dooley and the Vols look like one of the top three programs in the SEC East. Sure, the gap is wide between Tennessee and the upper echelon of the conference, but not as wide as previously suspected.
The Vols face a tough opponent in a difficult situation when they travel to Georgia this weekend. The underwhelming Dogs are a talented team with a strong coaching staff that will surely feel their backs against the wall and, perhaps, coaching jobs on the line. A win in Athens in that situation will be no easy feat. However, if the Vols can pull off that win and continue to develop as they have the first five weeks, Dooley will send a message to the rest of the conference, and he just might have his players counting more wins than expected this season once they learn to count the number of players on the field.
(Johnny Lewis is a Tennessee Volunteers Featured Columnist. Follow him on Twitter @kyvolunteer.)