It's not supposed to be this tough being a University of Tennessee football fan, is it?
Not after the Volunteers rolled for the last couple of decades, highlighted by years filled with big wins and the occasional close call that as much as anything made you savor the process.
Those days seem like a long time ago.
Tonight is the Vols' last chance to avoid an 0-for-October, and South Carolina's No. 7-ranked defense nationally is the worst Tennessee has seen this month. Read that sentence again.
But this is not the same South Carolina team that was favored to repeat as SEC East champion. There is no Marcus Lattimore, the league's best running back before tearing his ACL two weeks ago. There is no Stephen Garcia, who was an extreme player prone to mistakes and miracles, but losing a senior quarterback to discpline issues still changes the complexion of a team.
The Vols are teetering on the edge of desperation. Sure, blowout losses are never greeted with smiles and high-fives, but the Vols are not the only program that's going to take 1-2 knockout punches from LSU and Alabama.
UT turns to true freshman quarterback Justin Worley, and that move should be lauded if for no other reason than Derek Dooley and Co. realizing the offense was not going to work as it was. Change for change's sake is silly, but change made in hope of better results is a sign of leadership.
In fact, offensively, these Vols now mirror these Gamecocks. Each team has an NFL-ready receiver -- UT's Da'Rick Rogers and USC's Alshon Jeffery -- and a collection of question marks and duct tape. This game is winnable for the Vols, and a loss would be painful both on its face and in what it means for their bowl hopes.
Tennessee needs something -- anything -- on which to build, and finding a way to win a game against a watered-down South Carolina team that would have been considered a gimme, a within-the-leather tap-in not four years ago, would be a wonderful start.
So it goes in the cyclical world of college football. It happens to everyone, whether you have a golden helmet, a Crimson helmet with a number or a white hat with a Power T.
The reasons are either excuses or rationalizations, depending on the color of the flag on your car. And almost each of those reasons hinges on second-year Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, who has been a steadying force and a reliable leader but has yet to enjoy a breakthrough win. There is no doubt that Dooley is a very smart guy who seems to be a good man, but there's no debating that a debate is developing about whether he's going to be the coach to bring the Vols back to national prominence.
(Scary point to note: More non-UT fans are offering as many reasons to give Dooley more time as UT fans are. As a general rule, if your rivals are happy that your coach is your coach, then they are not worried about him beating their team. That's how rivals think, and if you don't believe that, Johnny Vols Fan, ask yourself this: Are you happy Nick Saban is at Alabama? Would you be tickled if he took another NFL job? See what I mean?)
The most common criticism of Dooley centers on the claim, "He's never beaten a team with a winning record," but that will be debunked this year because of the Vols' win over Cincinnati. Granted, a win over Cincinnati will never be a feather in the cap for any UT fan, but it's still a solid win.
We don't know this morning whether Dooley will be the long-term solution in Knoxville or not. And the more frequent the losses pile -- especially those that are highlighted by second-half meltdowns -- the jury's deliberations become more and more heated and less and less favorable.
And while some will say "sugar-coated," the facts are the facts good and bad:
-- He's 26-31 as a head coach and 9-11 at UT.
-- Before the Cincy win, he had never beaten a team that finished with a winning record.
-- There are a lot of unknowns about him as a recruiter, and let's face it, Saban and the rest of folks who are running big-time programs now are not reinventing the game of football -- they're getting the most studs. Never before has college football been more about the Jimmys and the Joes (and less about the X's and the O's) than now.
-- Dooley inherited a mess.
-- He has had to bid adieu to a lot of skilled folks. Bad seeds, yes, but good players none the less. (And if you think Darren Myles or Janzen Jackson wouldn't help this awful secondary, well, then you're not paying attention.)
-- Injuries to UT's two most important offensive players -- quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter -- could not have come at a less-opportune time.
Maybe that's the case, and not unlike Mike Shula at Alabama, maybe Dooley was brought in to clean up a rogue image and restore order and rebuild a foundation. Maybe. Or maybe he's the guy who will be able to rebuild and stay the course and be the one that reaps the benefits. Maybe.
That said, "maybe" is a scary word to be the primary description of your head coach and the direction of your program. But maybe is more a stopgap than an answer when the questions are about SEC football programs.
Ultimately those maybes take on a more definitive shape on days like this one.