Mark Wiedmer: Mississippi State game crucial for Derek Dooley

Mark Wiedmer: Mississippi State game crucial for Derek Dooley

October 9th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Third-year Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley was almost done with his media obligations Monday when someone reminded him that Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is undefeated (5-0) in his fourth season at MSU.

The implication was obvious. If Mullen could take a program that had posted a losing record in seven of the eight years before he arrived and stand 5-0 in his fourth year on the job, shouldn't the Big Orange Nation expect a similarly hot start from Dooley in 2013?

But Dooley didn't get his law degree by winning a raffle.

"Every situation is unique," he said.

Tennessee included. This isn't to say Dooley's Volunteers shouldn't defeat No. 19 MSU when the two meet at Davis Wade Stadium at the unseemly hour of 9 p.m. EDT Saturday.

The Vols may stand only 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference compared to the Bulldogs' 5-0/2-0 start, but check out the latest Jeff Sagarin computer rankings and you'll quickly see that this probably should be a toss-up game.

Especially since UT is returning from a week off. The Vols have won their last five games after an off week when facing an opponent ranked outside the top 10.

According to the Sagarin ratings, MSU should win this game by four to five points. But while he ranks the Bulldogs 29th to the Vols' 47, UT's schedule strength is 47 to MSU's 136.

In fact, 1-4 Auburn (61) is the toughest opponent the Bullies have faced in the Sagarin poll. Troy is second at 87 and hapless Kentucky third at 91.

Conversely, UT has faced Florida (5), Georgia (17) and N.C. State (45), which just stunned Florida State.

There's also this from Dooley's Monday presser: "I feel pretty good about how we handled the open week. We got a lot accomplished."

Every team advances at its own pace. Tennessee's pace may have been hurried by a dangerous opener against the Wolfpack and the Florida showdown two weeks later at Neyland Stadium.

In retrospect, a team that finished a discombobulated 5-7 last November probably shouldn't have been expected to head to Georgia with a 4-0 record, especially since Florida is clearly better than we thought.

Also never mind that there are now at least a few legitimate questions about the Bulldogs after their pitiful performance at South Carolina.

Regardless of that 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks, UGA still appears to have considerably more talent than UT. Yet the Vols kept knocking on the overtime door through the entire fourth quarter.

"I think you saw it at times in the Georgia game," UT senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "We made some mistakes, but we also made progress. I think we cleaned up a lot in the off week. "

Given its record, Mississippi State seems to have made a tremendous amount of progress from last year's 6-6 regular-season record to this season's 5-0 start.

But Kentucky is awful and Auburn actually may be worse. For proof that we may know essentially nothing about State to this point, UT's offense still stands second overall in total average yardage (506.6 ypg) and fourth in scoring (39.4 ppg), despite facing the SEC's fourth (Florida) and ninth (Georgia) best defenses.

Conversely, MSI is seventh in offense despite facing the league's 11th (Kentucky) and 12th (Auburn) worst D's.

Nothing's certain until Saturday night. The Vols just might be one of those frustrating teams that are always just good enough to get beat, always appearing to be better than their record.

Or maybe this is the week the Dooley era really begins, the coach earning his first win against a ranked opponent in his 13th opportunity.

Which brings us back to Monday afternoon's news conference. As he discussed Mullen's career at MSU while artfully dodging his own UT record to date, Dooley said of the Bullies' turnaround, "Sooner is always better than later."

No disrespect to MSU or Mullen, but Dooley's "sooner" will begin late Saturday night in Starkville, the Vols winning 28-17 on their way to an 8-4 regular season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com