Before the sun sets tonight, Derek Dooley will become part of Tennessee Volunteers lore.

His first game as the Vols head coach. His first - and only - chance to win his first game.

His hair may always be sharp, and his answers are sharper and smarter than the normal retorts uttered during post-practice interviews. But don't think for a minute that the magnitude of the moment - this moment - is lost on Dooley.

"I'm not always even-keel. You just see me when I am," Dooley said this week. "That's why we close practices, so y'all can always see me even-keel. I won't be even-keel in a game. I'll have anxiety. I hope I have it if I'm coaching 20 years from now. I think it's healthy to be a little nervous and to be a little on edge, because your mind's working."

His mind and heart may be racing late this afternoon, but not for long. This is UT-Martin, after all.

Yes, this Vols team will be tested by depth and talent issues that have not been experienced in Knoxville in a generation or three. Yes, a defensive line assembled with a fleet of quick-footed defensive ends, one NFL-bound defensive tackle and a lot of 'tweeners is not a precursor for SEC success. Yes, an entire quarterback corps with less than 20 major college passes does not exude confidence.

But c'mon, Coach, this is UT-Martin, right?

"Probably the two biggest concerns on our team right now are first time and first game, and I'll start with first game," Dooley offered. "Any time you go into a new season, the first game brings a lot of anxiety. You're always concerned about turnovers. You're always concerned about big special-teams plays."

He sounded a lot like his father Vince, who was the world's best poor-mouther during his legendary career at Georgia.

In truth, today should be about some much-needed healing for a program that has been hurting. From seeing Alabama win a national title to blindly embracing that knuckle-headed loudmouth who fled in the middle of a January night, it's been a tough year. And that was long before the black eye that was the Bar brawl.

The defections that started with the staff invaded the roster, and projected starters at quarterback (Nick Stephens), running back (Bryce Brown) and left tackle (Aaron Douglas) left town. Achilles' injuries toppled two defensive linemen. Let's just the offseason highlight video would be exceedingly short.

The healing process starts today with UT-Martin, and as far as Dooley is concerned the process can't get here fast enough.

"I wish we could kick off at like 9 in the morning, every game," he said. "But I've gotten used to this night stuff."

The Big Orange Nation should not get too comfortable with the expected cakewalk that will be Dooley's debut. After today's opener, there are a couple of games that appear to be surefire wins, but that's all. The season will be a fight, and Dooley appears willing to get in the middle of it.

He'll be undermanned at times. He'll be under-experienced, too. But he won't be under-prepared and he won't be overly obnoxious, which puts him a better position for long-term success than his predecessor.

"When you look at our two-deep, I think we have 18 freshmen in the two-deep and about 20 or 21 guys who this is going to be their first time stepping out on that field," Dooley said. "And with that comes a lot of anxiety, a lot of pressure, and if anybody can think about their first time at doing anything, you know it's not your best.

"So we have to do a great job as coaches to help manage our first-timers to get through the game and play as good as they can play."

Today will be Dooley's first time as the UT football coach. It may be the best result he has in what figures to be a trying season.

But it is the first step to healing, the first stride in rebuilding. Today may be the Vols' best game of the year, but for Dooley's program, the best is still yet to come.