As if the Williams-Brice Stadium scoreboard wasn't painful enough for Tennessee during the fourth quarter of last Saturday night's 63-38 setback at South Carolina, there was also the image of Volunteers quarterback Hendon Hooker writhing in pain on the field and then being helped to the sideline with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
"For me, I was real emotional," Vols junior running back Jabari Small said this week in a news conference. "I could barely look at him on Saturday."
Hooker has accompanied Tennessee's practices this week but is obviously unable to lead the offensive charge Saturday night, when the Vols (9-2, 5-2 SEC) travel to Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) with the objective of clinching their first 10-win regular season since 2003. There is also the goal of being invited to a New Year's Six Bowl destination, such as the Cotton, Orange or Sugar.
Putting behind the defensive debacle that was last Saturday's showing is one hurdle Tennessee is having to overcome, as is moving beyond the abrupt absence of Hooker.
"That was the worst part of the game, to be honest," senior edge rusher Byron Young said. "Hendon Hooker is like a brother to me. We came in at the same time. We always talk. This year we got closer, with me and him leaving and stuff like that. I hated to see that. He's the hardest working guy on our team.
"Everything he's been through -- transferring from Virginia Tech, having the best year of his life, and then that happens. You never want to see that happen to any player."
That the Vols can replace a sixth-year senior with fifth-year senior Joe Milton III is a plus, but keeping Milton healthy Saturday is significant given that the backups are redshirt sophomore walk-ons Gaston Moore and Navy Shuler. Milton has played in seven of 11 games this year, completing 23 of 33 passes (69.7%) for 573 yards and six touchdowns, though most of his action has transpired in mop-up duty against Ball State, Akron, UT Martin and Missouri.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder from Pahokee, Florida, started the first two games against Bowling Green and Pittsburgh last season before getting injured and being replaced by Hooker, so Saturday will mark Milton's first road start with the Vols.
"I don't think there will be any change," junior center Cooper Mays said. "We're going to go out there, and we're going to play as hard as we can. We have a great game plan, and I think Joe will run with that. I think you all have seen what Joe has done.
"I don't think we're going to play any differently."
Hooker's season stats that were shortened slightly by the injury consist of 229 completions in 329 attempts (69.6%) for 3,135 yards with 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His efficiency rating of 175.51 ranks third nationally, and he is the only quarterback this season to have a pair of top-seven wins after guiding the Vols over LSU (currently No. 5) and Alabama (No. 7).
There is also the matter of Tennessee leading the nation with 540.4 yards and 46.5 points per game that has resulted in Hooker being in the picture for five prominent awards -- Maxwell, Davey O'Brien, Manning, Unitas Golden Arm and the most recognized prize, the Heisman Trophy.
"He's not going to have an opportunity to play the last regular season game," Vols coach Josh Heupel said, "but as far as the rest of the season, there has been no one playing at a higher level than he has. You can see that in the way we've played. With the numbers he's put up, he absolutely deserves the opportunity to be there (at the Heisman ceremony in New York City).
"With some of the quarterback awards, I anticipate him having an opportunity to win those."
The post-Hooker era of Tennessee football begins Saturday night, and it's up to his teammates to help extend his legacy.
"He has done a lot in a short span while he has been here, with the way he touches people off the field and with the way he moves and his actions," Small said. "He is always a caring person. When he has had success, he has handled it very well. We all know his story, where he came from, how much he had to sacrifice and how many ups and downs he had to go through.
"I go to him for advice all the time. His impact here has been monumental."
DRESSED IN WHITE
The Vols will wear white jerseys and pants for a second consecutive Saturday, but the orange helmets worn last weekend will be replaced by the traditional white ones. This is just the second time this season that Tennessee has displayed its "Stormtrooper" look, with the first being the 34-27 overtime win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 10.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.