STARKVILLE, Miss. - The Derek Dooley Era at Tennessee just got a little more complicated in the early moments of this morning. Not necessarily more certain.
Just more interesting. A gritty, gutty 41-31 loss on the road to undefeated and 19th-ranked Mississippi State will do that for an embattled coach and his foggy program.
Was this an improvement, because the Volunteers trailed 27-14 at haltime but outgained the Bullies 183-10 in the third quarter while pulling within 27-24 and later to 34-31?
Or was the fact that the Vols were outclassed most of the first half, outgained 293 to 97 in yardage in that first half, a reason to begin to think about a third coaching change since 2008?
All that will surely percolate in the days and weeks to come, especially if Tennessee loses to both Alabama and South Carolina over the next two weeks.
But while the first half was a nightmare, the second was certainly a study in toughness for the losers.
First the Vols began the second half by marching down the field for a field goal to slice their 13-point halftime deficit to 27-17 with a quick field goal.
Then they forced the Bullies to punt for just the second time all night.
Then they began marching again, a rushing attack that had gained only 39 yards the entire first half suddenly gashing holes in an MSU defense that had begun the night ranked second in the SEC in rush defense.
This is how you win road games against ranked foes in the SEC. This is how you build programs for the long haul. You run the football when you want to so you might throw it when you prefer, rather than when the other guy's defense gives you no other options.
Yet as great as this newfound strength up front was, it was the newfound resolve the young man handing the football to those running backs that most impressed and inspired.
For during that first drive of the second half, the one that ended in a field goal before UT's second possession of the third period ended in a touchdown, Big Orange quarterback Tyler Bray found his left knee tucked beneath him at a troublesome angle after being tackled.
Bray rose slowly. He walked with a limp. You wondered if this might not be it for the California Kid. At least for this night.
But then he trotted onto the field for that next possession, albeit gingerly. His left knee was covered in a black brace. He was clearly in pain. But he played.
Oh, how he played. Within a few minutes he found Cordarelle Patterson all alone in the left front corner of the end zone for his first TD toss of the night. The Vols were within three points at 27-24. The Vols were alive. The Vols felt like the fresher, better team.
Not only because of Bray, of course.
But he was certainly a major reason for the physical and emotional swing taking place on the field, a swing that appears to be happening with far greater regularity for the men in pale orange.
It didn't last, of course. Devrin Young fumbled and MSU converted a few plays later to lead again by 10.
Yes, the Vols fought back, Bray finding fullback Ben Bartholomew in the end zone to again pull with three points (34-31) with more than five minutes to play.
And other than the outright lead, this is all any UT fan could have hoped for at that moment. With that much time on the clock, the Vols controlled their own destiny. Get a defensive stop quickly and there would be more than enough time to deliver the first Dooley victory over a ranked opponent in his 13th try.
Get a road win here against the undefeated Bullies, and New Year's Day bowl in sunny Florida would suddenly be possible.
Get a win here and all that negativity about the coach and the players and the program might fade away.
But then Mississippi State got two first downs, scored one more touchdown and danced into today with a 6-0 record. Maybe one day the Vols again will do the same. Whether they do it with Dooley or someone else now becomes a bigger question than ever before.