KNOXVILLE — A weekend off left many University of Tennessee football players sitting on the couch for hours Saturday.
The Volunteers saw Mississippi State stun Florida in the Swamp. They saw South Carolina travel to Kentucky and leave with a shocking loss.
Staff Photo by Patrick Smith Tennessee coach Derek Dooley talks with players on the sideline during Saturday's game against Georgia. Georgia won 41-14.
UT’s players aren’t blind. When they went to bed Saturday night, they knew every team in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division had at least two losses.
“How could you not know that?” senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz said.
Junior quarterback Matt Simms watched games “all day” at his brother Chris’s home in Nashville.
“It was just a crazy day,” Simms said. “I was blown away. It was unbelievable.”
What’s equally unbelievable is that the Vols (2-4, 0-3), the league’s only winless team through three games, are just an upset win over seventh-ranked Alabama (6-1, 3-1) from thrusting themselves back in the race.
“It’s great to know you still have a chance,” senior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said. “Of course, it puts a little pep in your step.”
Not so fast, said coach Derek Dooley.
Dooley sounded like he’d rather his players break curfew than peek at their place in the conference.
“If we’re looking at the SEC East standings, we’ve got real problems,” the coach said. “We need to be looking at our team and how we can win a football game. What is this, the fifth double-digit blowout prediction that we’re going to play? Is that right?
“And we’re talking about the SEC standings?”
But, as a reporter countered, it’s at least interesting that every team in the East has at least two losses by the middle of October.
“I think it’s obviously unique. But it happens,” Dooley replied. “In 2001 [at LSU], we made it to the [Georgia] Dome at 5-3, so it’s going to happen. It’s cyclical. But your point is right. When you go 6-2, you may not get there. And certainly as dominant as Florida has been in recent years, that’s what probably has changed.
“It’s probably unique to this time of year, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is. Especially in the East.
No East team has made it to the SEC title game with three league losses. Only two teams from the West have done it — LSU in 2001 and Arkansas in 2002.
The East representative has had two losses just four times in the SEC title game’s 18-year history.
So, technically, the Vols have a chance, but they’d have to beat Alabama and then upset 19th-ranked South Carolina next week in Columbia, and then top Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in November. Even then, they’d probably nee help from another Georgia and Florida loss: The Gators and Bulldogs haven’t played each other, and both have other tough tests along the way.
But considering the way UT has played, it’s not tough to understand Dooley rolling his eyes at the mere thought of that improbable run.
“Let’s win one [SEC] game before we start talking about any of that,” he said.
Plus, his mantra since arriving in Knoxville has been to compete one play at a time while ignoring the scoreboard and standings.
At least a few of his players have grasped that concept.
“I don’t keep up with that stuff. I really don’t,” senior wide receiver Gerald Jones said. “I don’t really care. I’m just trying to get this team to win one game in the SEC. That’s my main focus. I’m sick of losing. I don’t care about what Florida’s doing, and I don’t care about what Georgia’s doing. Hat’s off to them, whatever. I’m trying to get this team a victory. We need a victory.
“Them losing, OK, they might say it’s not over — it might be, it might not be, you never know — but it depends on if you prepare and if you get a win or not. That’s what I’m worried about.”
Others admitted they were uplifted by the weekend’s wackiness.
“It’s great news, obviously,” Simms said. “No matter what’s happened earlier this year, it’s still possible for us to be in contention,” Simms said. “We only need a few things to happen, and the way this conference is going right now, anything is possible. There’s always stuff we’ve got to get better and improve upon, but I always like to look at the bright side of everything. Even though we have struggled in the conference so far this year, anything is possible.
“We can definitely fight and get our way back into this.”
But as Simms added and Reveiz seconded, none of that matters if the Vols don’t fix their own house.
Still, Reveiz said “it’s never a bad thing” to know your team still has a shot.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t peek down the road — you know, ‘If we win this, this and this.’ It’s hard not to,” Reveiz said. “But when you come to the complex, as soon as you take one step in this building, you’ve got to dismiss all those notions. You’ve just got to trust the process. That’s what Coach Dooley’s been trying to preach to us since he got here.
“Quite honestly, it’s hard, especially because it used to be, ‘If we just do this and this, we’ll make it to the SEC championship [game].’ But you’ve just got block it out. It’s this game, and then this game, and then this game. It’s this play, and then this play, and then this play.
“I know you hate this cliche, but it’s one game at a time, one play at a time. But it’s so true. If you get yourself looking ahead, you’re going to get embarrassed.”