KNOXVILLE — Four games into the season, exactly one third of the way through, we're still waiting for this University of Tennessee football team to establish an identity.
So far all we know for certain is that the Volunteers are better than what looks to be a middle-of-the-ACC-pack North Carolina State team and are only slightly better than a bad MAC foe, at home. It took a 17-point fourth quarter for UT to break open what was just a four-point lead against Akron.
The hangover from last week's second-half collapse against Florida continued through the first three quarters of Saturday night's game as the Vols committed two turnovers, including a pick-six on the third play of the game. The defense surrendered 202 first-half yards, including a 70-yard touchdown run, forcing UT to have to battle back for a tying field goal just before halftime.
Similar to the fourth quarter scene against Florida, boos began descending onto the field from all corners of Neyland Stadium during the second quarter as the Vols struggled with an Akron team that just a week earlier snapped a 10-game losing streak.
The outcome remained in doubt well into the night as the sparse crowd sat anxiously on their hands with UT hanging on to a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Critics of coach Derek Dooley have pointed out the need for UT to show some fight in the second half of a close game. It just wasn't expected to be needed against the Zips, who had lost 23 of their last 26 games coming in.
Early on, Akron routinely found holes in a patchwork UT secondary that had two new starters. Tennessee tightened up defensively in the second half, holding Akron to 142 total yards to help outscore the Zips 24-3 in the final two quarters.
The early struggle for the Vols' offense was its inability to finish drives. On its first six trips to the red zone, UT had to settle for four field goals, before its final two TD passes late.
There remains more anxiety than confidence as Tennessee prepares for a five-week gauntlet that will define this season, and possibly decide whether Dooley continues to be paid for wearing orange slacks on the sideline each Saturday.
Beginning this Saturday at at No. 5 Georgia, an emotionally fragile UT team will face four ranked SEC foes in five weeks. After Georgia comes a trip to No. 23 Mississippi State, back home to play top-ranked Alabama, then a trip to No. 7 South Carolina just before Halloween.
The results of that stretch could either begin turning the program around or produce another frightening ending. Facing a similarly brutal schedule last year, the Vols lost four straight October games, leading to a second straight losing season. Dooley is 0-11 at UT against ranked teams and desperately needs a signature win with a resume that includes a 4-14 conference record with wins against only Vanderbilt (twice), Ole Miss and Kentucky.
The Vols proved against Florida that they are talented enough to remain close into the second half against a talented conference foe. The next step in them returning to respectability, and in Dooley securing his future, is to put together a complete four-quarters effort and beat one of those ranked opponents.
Or at the very least show improvement by not getting whipped as they did last season, when SEC opponents outscored Tennessee 139-42 after halftime. Or a week ago when Florida pulled away with a 27-6 second-half run.
The Vols could use their lack of experience and depth as an explanation for last season's second-half struggles. One year later, with noticeably more experience and depth, that excuse no longer works. So beginning this Saturday in Athens, we'll begin learning what the identity for this Vols' team will be.
And possibly just how secure is Dooley's grip as the leader of the program in the future.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...