KNOXVILLE — Picking up the pieces from a loss the day before has become all too familiar a routine for Tennessee's football team.
As those losses mount in disappointment and the external noise increases about the program's future, keeping those pieces together each week becomes more challenging for the Volunteers.
Two more uphill climbs await on the heels of similar close losses, and how Tennessee manages its own psyche will determine the direction of the season's remaining six games.
"I'm not worried," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said after the Vols' 41-31 loss at Mississippi State on Saturday night. "We've been great all year, even to this point. This team is going to battle back."
Tennessee's senior leader referenced how the Vols seemingly have remained steady amid the ups and downs of the season's first half. That mindset, though, will be tested the next two weeks. If the Vols can't upset top-ranked Alabama in Knoxville next weekend or ninth-ranked South Carolina in Columbia in October's weekend, they'll enter November 0-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
"You've just got to dig down and keep fighting," tailback Devrin Young said. "You've got to ask yourself, 'Is this something I want? Is something I love? Is this something that we're going to do?'"
Saturday night didn't help quell any of the fan base's grumbling or any discussion of third-year coach Derek Dooley's job security. The negativity took a tangible form on Tennessee's own campus. The iconic rock on campus that individuals students and student groups regularly paint was anonymously decorated with an anti-Dooley message overnight on Sunday before being painted over later in the day.
The words "Fire Fooley" were printed on the front of the rock surrounded by reminders of the coach's overall record (14-17), record against ranked opponents in Knoxville (0-13), winless mark against rivals Florida, Georgia and Alabama and last season's streak-busting loss at Kentucky.
"I don't read it or look at it," Dooley said Saturday night of the so-called outside chatter. "I'm going to be watching Alabama [tape] to try to help our players [and] give them a good plan to go out there and give them a chance. That's all you can do in this profession."
Tennessee's defense continues to be a major problem, and Dooley said the issues go beyond any typical growing pains of the transition to first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's new schemes. The Vols are 87th nationally and 13th in the SEC in total defense at 429.8 yards per game. Only twice in the last 30 years (1982 and 2007) has a Tennessee allowed more than 400 yards.
In three SEC games, Tennessee has allowed 129 points and a whopping 1,565 yards.
"It's definitely us," Lathers said. "Busts, missed assignments, misalignments, not playing our right gaps, not tearing off blocks and making plays. It's on us and not the coaches."
According to cornerback Prentiss Waggner, Sunseri has simplified the play calls in recent weeks.
"I didn't expect this," linebacker and former Ooltewah prep standout Jacques Smith said. "This is wowing me, really, but we've got a lot of games left. We've got a lot of ball left, and we determine our destiny as a football team."
Furthering the defensive frustration is the glimpses of effectiveness Tennessee actually does show. Against Georgia, the Vols forced two second-quarter stops and finished the game with stops on four consecutive possessions. Tennessee forced punts on Mississippi State's first four second-half series.
"We didn't really give up a ton of huge plays tonight, so it was a different storyline," Dooley said. "We hit these stretches where we play pretty good, which is what's bizarre. It's not good.
"When you're giving up a lot of points and a lot of yards, it's usually a combination of a lot of things."
If the defense continues to play at its historically bad pace, it'll continue to ruin the Vols' talent on offense. Tennessee, 116th nationally in rushing last season, has run for 197 and 213 yards its last two SEC games. Talented receiver Cordarrelle Patterson became the fifth player in program history on Saturday — and first since Carl Pickens in 1991 — with a touchdown on a kick return and receiving or rushing.
The last two games have shown Tennessee can play tough for four quarters, but that effort hasn't resulted in a win.
"Regardless of what it is, we've got to realize that we've got to keep fighting and one of these days things are going to go our way," receiver Zach Rogers said.
If it continues to go against the Vols, they could find it increasingly harder to sustain that fight.
"All you can do is go to the next one and try to get over the hump next week," Dooley said. "That's what athletics is. You never know when it's going happen, and you've got to keep coaching, keep correcting, keep evaluating and have got to play your way through it.
"Every week you get a chance to go prove yourself, and that's how you've got to look at it. You can't go in the tank when things aren't going your way. The best way to feel better is to play good the next week, and that's all you can do."
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 ...