KNOXVILLE -- One standard is clearly visible on the scoreboard after each game.
The other is harder to see and more difficult to quantify.
It's the balance the Tennessee football team has battled the last few weeks, with another October losing streak at the hands of established programs oozing with talent, depth and experience showing the Volunteers how much ground they have left to cover.
Derek Dooley is well into his second season as UT's head coach, and among his many challenges in building back up a program that's 21-24 since 2008 is preaching the value of the process to his team in a sport and society that so heavily emphasize results.
"Well, it's very hard because externally you're measured by one thing: Did you win or did you lose?" Dooley said. "So you have an external standard that is important because ultimately that's what's going to be your standard over time. But it's so important to maintain an internal standard of what our expectations are as far as how we play, what our approach is every day and how we work, what our mental preparation is and then how we handle the things that happen in the game and the improvement we show over time.
"As long as you keep your focus on that, ultimately you're going to play well if you've got the right players on your roster."
As the past two games -- 31-point losses to top-ranked LSU and second-ranked Alabama -- have shown, the Vols simply don't have enough of the right players right now, and the only solution is developing current players and recruiting future standouts. But that long-term solution won't help the Vols in the short term, starting with tonight's game against 14th-ranked South Carolina.
It's another chance, perhaps the last realistic opportunity of the season, for Dooley to get his first marquee Southeastern Conference win. More importantly, though, it's a chance to again gauge individual and team improvement. That hasn't been easy the last two times the Vols took the field.
"It is hard. I mean, obviously you want to win and that's when the most positives come out of it," said senior linebacker Austin Johnson. "It's hard to look on the film and say, 'Hey, I played really well' when you lost. You're obviously disappointed and so you have mixed feelings about it. Everyone's just got to watch their performance and focus on what they have to do and their job, and if they do that we should be fine."
There have been some positives to take from the first halves of the two ugly losses. The Vols ran the football much better against two stiffer defenses, and while defensively the secondary struggles continue, UT held its own up front. The trick, obviously, is putting a whole game together.
"I see a lot of improvement. It's we've just got to put four quarters together," freshman safety Brian Randolph said. "We know we can hang with the better teams, but we've got to stay in there for the whole game. We feel that we're getting better. I think we can tell the process."
The process hit some snags with a trio of injuries and a key dismissal for a young team that will get even younger tonight when freshman quarterback Justin Worley and freshman left guard Marcus Jackson enter the starting lineup. When a full-strength UT offense scored 45 points rather easily on a ranked Cincinnati team, there was optimism for what the season could become. Six weeks later, the Vols are coming off two blowout losses and haven't won an SEC game.
"We can't get down this season," tailback Tauren Poole said. "We've got to continue to stay positive, even though there's a lot of negativity around this program, floating around this university because the program's not where it should be. That's expected when you don't win."
The Vols don't want to use youth or injuries as excuses, though, and Dooley refuses to allow the level of the opponent to change how he evaluates how his players perform. The reality is Alabama and LSU will make most teams look bad, especially one that's rebuilding like Tennessee.
"You can still see things," Dooley said. "I always say, 'What are plays, good things and bad things that have nothing to do with the opponent you're playing?' There's a lot of times in a game where a guy does things bad and it has nothing to do with the opponent. You can't say, 'Well, we played LSU, that's why we couldn't complete a hitch route.'
"You've got to try to separate, on the particular play, that guy really made a [heck] of a play, so it's OK, go to the next one. On that play, you stepped with the wrong foot when the ball was snapped. That had nothing to do with that guy. You see? You measure it based on what you can control, and if a player's doing everything that he can within his control, then that's all you can ask."
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 ...