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KNOXVILLE - Derek Dooley has spent seven of his 15 coaching years in Louisiana - three as Louisiana Tech's head coach after four as an LSU assistant.

In two of those three years at Tech, he bused his Bulldogs 215 miles to Baton Rouge.

Dooley knows more than most about Tiger Stadium and its inhabitants.

"The challenge this week is obvious," Tennessee's first-year head coach said Monday, looking ahead to today's 3:30 p.m. EDT Southeastern Conference game for his Volunteers (2-2, 0-1) against 12th-ranked LSU (4-0, 2-0).

"Talented program. Deep. One of the winningest in the country the last 10 years. Phenomenal on defense and special teams. So much team speed."

About his own team, Dooley said, "We need to evaluate our personnel, where we are and where we need to go."

One reporter quickly asked Dooley what specific personnel he was evaluating.

"Really, all of them," the coach replied. "Where some of our younger guys are. Do they need more reps and playing time? Where some of our older guys are. Are they performing the way we need to perform?"

It took a little reading between the lines, but the message of those Monday comments was crystal clear.

Last week's 32-29, double-overtime home win over UAB would have been a blowout loss today at LSU. And Dooley had three days of practice before Friday's walk-through and today's game to determine how many changes he'll make today and how much improvement those will create.

The Vols must improve to win today.

"A lot," junior quarterback Matt Simms said. "We have to play a lot better to win these types of games. But I know we can win them."

After a poor tackling performance against UAB, Dooley gave his banged-up, depth-depleted roster an extra day off from practice. But then the Vols had three particularly physical practices at Haslam Field.

"It's going to be hard for me to compromise being physical and tackling," Dooley said. "And if that means guys are going to get hurt, I'm going to have to live with that - because what I can't live with is watching a team that doesn't tackle well, so I'd rather have the worst players in college football who are going to go tackle than have good players who won't tackle.

"I'm sorry. We're going to be physical ... and we're going to tackle. I may be kicking myself in three weeks, but I don't know what's worse. It's hard to look at a team that doesn't tackle very well.

"Now, the Florida game, we tackled great. And they had a lot better skill guys that would cause more missed tackles. That tells me it's mental. It's mental energy."

LSU coach Les Miles, who knows Dooley's style quite well, expects the Vols to tackle the Tigers with the same proficiency with which they tackled the Gators.

"Derek Dooley, certainly we are very familiar with him," Miles said. "His guys were always well prepared, and his guys will be ready to play. Tennessee is a very physical team with good speed. I watched them on film, and they are a very capable team, and they were ahead virtually in every game.

"We understand our work is going to be cut out for us. It is going to be a great test for us."

Miles said the Vols do "not have the speed of West Virginia, nor the ability of the teams [the Tigers] have had in the past."

"It is a little more physical brand of football that we are going to have to be prepared for," Miles added. "I look forward to the challenge and enjoy the fact that we are undefeated, and I want to stay that way."

To change that, the Vols must overcome recent struggles and run successfully against a stout front seven coached by former longtime UT defensive coordinator John Chavis. They'll also have to drastically improve their pass protection in the face of Chavis-designed blitzes and complete passes to convert third downs - something they're next-to-last nationally in accomplishing.

UT also must expertly execute on special teams to avoid becoming the latest chapter in LSU star Patrick Peterson's dark horse Heisman campaign.

There is very little margin for error. And the Vols have a very thin, very inexperienced roster.

Dooley said he was bringing only "66 to 68" players to Baton Rouge. Five or so will be walk-ons. And nearly half of them have never traveled with UT to a road game.

"This will be fun to watch," Dooley said. "You don't know what's going to happen. Just think about when you got in the car with your four buddies, and you'd never been on a road trip before. And you hit that highway ... man, you don't know what's going to happen, because you don't know these guys.

"Hey, that's what we've got."

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@timesfreepress.com or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/wesrucker or Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat

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