KNOXVILLE — Three weeks ago, just as he was preparing for Tennessee’s football season opener against outmanned UT-Martin, someone asked new Volunteers coach Derek Dooley if he could poor-mouth as expertly as his father Vince once did at Georgia.
“We used to joke about it as kids,” said Derek, mindful that Vince could make Vanderbilt sound as dangerous as Alabama, even if the Tide had just beat the Commodores by 63 points.
“I remember him going on and on about somebody’s onside-kick coverage one time and thinking, ‘These guys must be pretty bad if Dad had to dig down all the way to their onside-kick coverage to say something nice about them.’
“But you get into coaching and you realize he was right, because every time you overlook somebody or don’t take them seriously, you get embarrassed.”
Dooley made sure the Vols weren’t embarrassed by little brother UT-Martin, grounding the Skyhawks 50-0.
But two games and two losses later, one can’t help but wonder if the coach’s concerns for Saturday opponent Alabama-Birmingham aren’t so much poor-mouthing as straight shooting.
Yes, the Blazers are just 1-2 after Saturday’s last-second, 34-33 home win over Troy. They lost their opener by 32-31 to Florida Atlantic. They were crushed 28-7 at SMU.
But UAB is coming off a victory instead of two straight losses by a total of 48 points, as is the case for the Big Orange after losing to Oregon and Florida.
Tennessee shouldn’t lose this one, of course. But you have to wonder if Dooley isn’t genuinely concerned that these could be two programs passing in the night, one moving north and one heading south.
“[UAB’s] four years into their program,” Dooley said during his Monday afternoon media luncheon. “They’ve got a deep team. They have 17 starters returning, and they’ve played in enough of these kinds of games that they’re not going to be starry-eyed. They’ve got more experience, more depth, and they don’t even have to bring their best to beat us.”
Now that last part is almost certainly like father, like son. For if the Blazers can really beat the Vols without their best game, UT could finish with eight losses for the first time in school history.
Then again, how many Ole Miss fans ever thought Jacksonville State could beat the Rebels, especially after Mississippi led 31-10?
For that matter, who would ever have dreamed that FCS member UMass could play Michigan within five points in the Big House a week after the Wolverines toppled Notre Dame?
Parity may not have yet come to college football in the same way it has to college hoops, but when Boise State can hold a top-five ranking, when James Madison can beat Virginia Tech on the road five days after the Hokies threw away a game against Boise, times are certainly changing.
Dooley also has been on the wrong side of a UAB shocker before. When Nick Saban first came to LSU, his Bayou Bengals were upset by the Blazers inside Tiger Stadium.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Dooley, an LSU assistant that 2000 season. “I actually laid in my bed last night thinking about it.”
What he remembers is the kind of meltdown that can beat any team. The Tigers were flat; they turned the ball over; they had little depth along the offensive and defensive lines.
So could the Vols actually be in trouble this weekend if they don’t bring their best game?
“It’s going to be a real big challenge for us,” Dooley said. “[No. 1 tailback Tauren] Poole’s banged up; [key receiver] Denarius Moore’s banged up. I don’t know what their status is going to be, so we just continue to thin up to make it interesting.”
Let UAB win this one and Tennessee’s season could get really interesting in a dark sort of way. Any thought of a bowl bid might be replaced by visions of 4-8 or 3-9.
But Dooley also remembered something else about that UAB upset of LSU.
“The week after,” he said, “we beat Tennessee in overtime.”
Oddly enough, Tennessee again visits LSU the week after UAB. This is not to say the Vols will lose to the Blazers, but if they do, most Big Orange fans would probably get over it if Dooley could follow that loss with a victory over LSU.
If nothing else, no one can accuse him of poor-mouthing next week if he declares the Tigers superior to the Big Orange.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6273.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...