A third of the University of Tennessee football season is in the rearview mirror, and there are few facts other than that the weather has finally embraced the season.
Four games have produced two wins, two losses and too many questions to know much about these Volunteers after a buffet of foes that featured a cupcake (UT-Martin), a $2 steak (UAB) that was way too tough for anyone's liking and two pieces of prime rib (Florida and Oregon) that reminded longtime UT fans what it was like to be a top-10 team and showed those new to the program that Tennessee has a long way to go to get to where it's been.
Today brings a trip to arguably the SEC's toughest venue - LSU's Tiger Stadium. Today brings the road conference baptism for almost half the 65 or so players comprising Tennessee's travel roster. Today brings the real possibility of another manhandling at the hands of a program with more talented manpower.
Today also brings chance. The chance to learn more about this team and its first-year coach. The chance to erase the memories of the great UAB escape. The chance to see which players are builders and which are crumblers.
"I don't think you should ever stop evaluating your personnel, and I think the players need to know that," Derek Dooley said this week. "It's not personal, but the guys that go out there and produce consistently are the ones that deserve to play. These guys want more than anything to play ...
"That's what sports is all about."
He's right, of course. Production should mean playing time.
That definition of sport is short, too. It's limited, especially for a college football fan base that is starving for something in which to believe. Sports are about competing, about winning, about succeeding, and to this point there has been either too little of each or it's been too difficult to enjoy.
That likely will continue today. LSU is unbeaten and more talented than this Vols team. By a lot, actually.
"We've spent a lot of hours discussing them, and we hadn't come up with any solutions yet," Dooley said. "When you combine good coaching and really good players, you get what you see, and that's as good a defense as there is anywhere in the country."
Notice Dooley had high praise for the LSU defense, and it's justified. This is not a prepackaged family-copyrighted Dooley opponent oversell. LSU has 11 sacks and six interceptions in four games, and the young Tennessee offensive line has allowed consistent pressure on quarterback Matt Simms, who has been sacked 14 times. The Tigers are special defensively, and this UT team will be lucky to score 20 points.
But that's the thing. As good as the Tigers are on defense is as bad as they are on offense. If the Vols do not turn the ball over and do not kick the ball anywhere near Patrick Peterson, 20 points could be enough.
If UT can stay close and allow LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson - and coach Les Miles - the chance to give the game away, they will.
"If" is a powerful word for a needy fan base, though. "If" starts the types of sentences and thoughts that magnify struggles and make losses even more painful.
But "if" the Vols stay close and "if" they have a chance late, that's something. Whether it's only a better chance to help Dooley's evaluation process, that's something, right?
The reverse also is true. Things could get ugly for a Tennessee team that will be littered with wide-eyed first-timers. Dooley spoke a lot this week about the intimidation factor that Tiger Stadium presents. He even talked about Mike, the caged Bengal tiger that sits right next to the visitors' entrance.
Win or lose, the lessons from today for Dooley and Co. are everywhere. From the scoreboard to the huddle to the locker room, how the Vols handle the "if" scenarios will speak volumes about the present and the future.
If the Vols deliver, it could be at least a positive step forward and maybe Dooley's signature win.
If not, well, how 'bout this weather? Nice, huh?
Contact Jay Greeson at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.