KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley finally cracked a little bit.
For the first time this season, his Tennessee football team truly has no room for error. If the Volunteers lose to Vanderbilt tonight in Neyland Stadium, they will miss a bowl game for the second time in four years and guarantee a losing record for the fourth time in seven years.
The second-year UT coach has kept the same mentality, at least publicly, leading up to every game. Whether the Vols were playing on the road at Florida, hosting top-ranked LSU or facing Middle Tennessee State for homecoming, there was pressure to play well and win because it was another one of a dozen games on the schedule.
With the postseason on the line tonight, the pressure is ratcheted up, and Dooley is eager to see how his young team responds.
"I don't know how we're going to look," he said. "All I hope is we play to our capacity for four quarters. That's all I ever ask of them, and there's some games I feel like we have, then there's a lot of games where we haven't.
"It's a little bit like being in the playoffs. That's what we're in. We've still got to play the next week if we lose, but if you lose, you're out of the bowl."
The Vols were in a similar predicament last season, needing to run the table in November after starting 2-6. They need only two wins this time, and there's a little bit of the experience from last year to help.
"It's a little bit of a change in mentality," defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "We knew what was at stake -- we knew we had to win out unless we didn't want to go bowling -- so I think it's the same thing this year. We just know we've got to win these last two games."
Much of the focus, though, is on the Commodores, who also can clinch bowl eligibility with a win tonight. Only after a win tonight can UT look to next week's trip to Kentucky. Vanderbilt is a one-point favorite and whipped the Wildcats by 30 last week.
UT's confidence should get a lift from the likely return of quarterback Tyler Bray, but the whole team will need to play better than it has to get its first SEC win. The Vols had to move on quickly from last week's 42-point loss at Arkansas to focus on their season's defining games.
"I feel like they've refocused a little bit, and I think they understand the magnitude of this game," said offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "I want our kids to go out and perform because it's a football game and we're representing the University of Tennessee. To me, the performance level that we're continually looking for is consistent performance, which we've been unable to obtain thus far.
"If they'll go out and walk across the line and play their butts off for 60 minutes, I'm very comfortable with that."
Putting together an entire 60-minute game would be a change for the Vols, who have played better, more talented teams tough for a stretch but wilted after halftime. What hasn't changed, though, is the approach in practice. Dooley said the Vols practiced well leading up to the Arkansas game and added there's not been a drastic change in intensity this week with what's on the line.
"We didn't have a very good one [Tuesday], and we had a real good one [Wednesday]," he said. "These guys are still learning how to practice and approach. They're not where they will be over time.
"I'm sure they're talking amongst themselves about how important it is, but we've gone out here and practiced like we've always practiced."
With two more wins, the Vols will get to work on learning how to practice with more of them coming for bowl preparation. It's what Dooley and his staff stressed as the importance of a bowl game last year, and with another young team this year, it's still the case. Beyond that, though, a bowl game provides a trip for the players in addition to taking away some of the sting of a season that's included blowout losses and key injuries.
"We thought we'd definitely have an eight-win season at least," linebacker Austin Johnson said. "That didn't happen; we drew some bad cards and we've just got to keep playing. No matter who we lost, we always expect to keep winning.
"I want to play one more game. That bowl game's kind of that fun part of the season, and just going and spending that kind of time with the guys, I really want that. It's extremely important to me, and the guys know that. I made that clear to them. I think everyone's ready for the challenge."
The Vols simply have no other option, especially in tonight's game.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...