Never mind the path or precipitous slide to this point. The University of Tennessee football team heads to Mississippi State desperate.
Desperate for a win of merit. Desperate for a victory that carries weight beyond the standings. Desperate — from the top of the program through the locker room to the millions of Johnny Vols Fans everywhere — for a win that carries with it more pride than relief and more celebration than cause.
The Tennessee Volunteers face the unbeaten, 19th-ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs today as underdogs in Vegas and running out of big-game moments to make believers out of a starving fan base and a multitude of doubtful onlookers.
The big-game refrain is not new for these Vols.
• The opener against N.C. State was big because of the offseason of unrest, and Tennessee passed with flying colors.
• The Florida game was big because it was the SEC opener and because it was Florida. Tennessee failed out loud.
• The Georgia game was big to see how UT would compete and fight on the road against a more talented foe. The Vols narrowly passed, showing effort and fight to the end, even if they fell a touchdown short on the scoreboard.
But the big-game train becomes a broken record when it's filled with broken promises. Want to know when every game is a big game? When you are starving for respectability.
Alabama doesn't have that many big games because Alabama is everyone else's big game. Same goes for the other power programs and elite teams. Tennessee used to be one of those guys. Now the Vols are picking fights and looking for highlights around college football's toughest neighborhood.
And for all the uppercuts and jabs and swings and misses, Derek Dooley's Vols stand winless in 12 tries against ranked opponents. It's the albatross stat that is the endless basket of snacks for the anti-Dooley faction to feast on and the lingering cloud that the pro-Orange Trouser brigade cannot avoid.
That's part of the stakes that make tonight in Starkville so intense. Be it perception, be it false views or orange-tinted glasses, be it the caste structure of the SEC, tonight is a big game, a big test and a big moment.
And ultimately it's a bigger opportunity.
Consider the hard numbers of this game. Looking at the schedule — Tennessee is 3-2 and, barring injury, figures to be a mid-sized-to-double-digit favorite in its four November games against Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Tennessee will be a sizable underdog against Alabama and South Carolina later this month. If those expectations hold true, that leaves Tennessee 7-4, not counting tonight's game.
The swing game in the standings and in perception is against Mississippi State, and the difference in appearance and feel between 8-4 and 7-5 is dramatic.
Those numbers carry the core value of the stakes, of course, but lest we forget, the pecking order in the league and patience of the fan base will be strained with anything less than victory today.
There are moments in sports that carry more weight and radiate even before they happen. Moments in a possession, a game and a season. This is one of those moments. This is one of the moments that you know the outcome today will lead to more. Will it be more good or more bad? More frustration or more excitement? More angst or more hope?
This is one of those moments, a fork in the road for these Vols and potentially the Vols of tomorrow if you believe this is the game Dooley needs to win to get off the hot seat. A split in the path that carries two separate directions and two distinct results.
There is no competing and standing toe-to-toe and fighting the good fight this week. This is the core of team sports meritocracy: It's win or lose — there's no close.
Even if it comes by a missed call, a tough break or bad luck, a loss is a loss today, and a loss will hurt. A lot.
Whether these Vols deliver will be a testament — good or bad — about how much loyalty and respect Dooley has within the walls of the program. Will this team produce, knowing Dooley needs it now more than ever?
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...