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Commentary by Jay Greeson

jgreeson@timesfreepress.com

University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley was hired in mid-January, but his real work starts today.

Until today, it was enough that he said things that sounded Southern. Until today, it pleased the fan base that he was the anti-Kiffin. Until today, the path has been littered with talks of time and hints of honeymoon.

Until today, wins - on the field and in the public's perception - were easy for Dooley and his staff. Today, however, that changes.

After eight months of booster banquets, preseason news conferences and snappy sound bites, Dooley and his team face a chore today. The Oregon Ducks come calling, and they bring with them Dooley's first true challenge. And his first true opportunity to prove his mettle.

Dooley has banked a bundle of good will by using phrases like "chopping wood" and down-home words like "britches." He rightly embraced the UT traditions - this is Tennessee, after all - and has preached about discipline and execution.

He simply has talked the talk, and in the last eight months that's been enough.

Today, with UT-Martin firmly in the rearview mirror, Dooley and Co. get a chance to walk with players and programs their size starting today. Or as Dooley said last week, "it's time to play big-boy football."

Big-boy football arrives today, and it is here to stay for a while. Florida is next week and the month of October features LSU, Georgia, Alabama and South Caroilina. Big-boy football means big-boy opponents and big-boy chances.

And, if the Volunteers and Dooley aren't careful, big-boy bruises that go beyond whelps and contusions. No, the physical pain is not the most damaging at this junction for the Vols.

This is a fragile program - and a very fragile fan base, for that matter - and while a difficult start was expected, it must be contained. This is not about moral victories or any of that other drivel Kiffin was parlaying this time last year. Rather, this is about competing. This is about playing tough and playing hard and playing to win - especially if the losses start to mount.

Losses will come, but competing today and next week and into next month as the struggles continue to mount will be as good a benchmark for Dooley's first year as any.

Simply put, the schedule breaks into fours for these Vols.

On talent and circumstance, there are four games (UT-Martin, Memphis, UAB and Vandy) that figure to be certain wins and four games (Oregon, Florida, Alabama and at LSU) that a Vols win would be considered a pretty big upset.

That leaves four others, and in the middle will be where Dooley's first season will be shaped. That middle - those swing games - has the power to forge opinion for the short term and from the historical perspective.

A split figures to be a realistic goal, and six wins and a bowl berth would be a successful debut for Dooley. Sweep the middle and go 8-4 and Dooley would be on the short list for national coach of the year. Go 0-for-the middle on the way to 4-8, and the honeymoon is one season and Dooley's seat becomes warm in 2011.

The only constant, though, is competing - especially in the season's first half. That starts today.

Today is the most winnable test from the upper upset tier. Oregon is ranked in the top 10, but the Ducks - like the Vols - have questions that can be answered only after a team is punched in the mouth.

Can Tennessee land the first punch? Can it keep swinging after taking a few to the side of the head? We will know tonight, and the answers will tell us a lot about the Vols' first-year coach.

You can bet your britches on that.

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