Season, Dooley’s career could take turn tonight
By Grant Ramey | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The term “must win” gets thrown around a lot over the course of a football season.
And with the Tennessee football program in the state it’s in, and Derek Dooley on the somewhat warm seat he’s on, it’s a term bound to get thrown around a lot over the next seven Saturdays.
Might as well start tonight, when Dooley and his Vols kick off against an undefeated and 19th ranked Mississippi State team on the road in Starkville, Miss.
Does a loss guarantee Dooley will lose his job? No. And far from it. Does a win guarantee Dooley keeps his job? Not really. But oh the momentum it could build.
A win would squash the “0-for-ranked opponents” stat Dooley has to carry around. Or that “never won a big game” stat that so frequently comes up.
And now is as good a time as any to silence, if nothing else, those stat-wielding critics in specific.
“It would be very important,” linebacker Jacques Smith said this week. “It is crucial for us to get a win right now against an SEC team. We have to go out there and finish.
“We need to minimize our mistakes and go out in the fourth quarter and win the ball game. It is something we are choking on. We need to go out there and do it.”
Doing that is more than possible against Mississippi State.
Sure, the Bulldogs are undefeated at 5-0. But an SEC school that’s undefeated entering the second weekend in October and only ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 speaks volumes, at least at this point, about Dan Mullen’s squad.
Two of State’s five wins includes FCS opponents in Jackson State and South Alabama. Those two are a comined 3-8 this season.
Two more of State’s five wins have come in SEC play. But those wins were over Auburn at home and on the road at Kentucky.
The talk around Auburn is how to finance Gene Chizik’s buyout after a 1-4 start. And for Kentucky, well, Western Kentucky picked up a win in Lexington earlier this season, too.
That has to make State’s biggest win thus far a 30-24 decision over 3-3 Troy University, right? That’s a six-point home win over a Sun Belt team.
So maybe that No. 19 ranking isn’t so disrespectful as it first appears.
Flip the schedule — giving Dooley Mullen’s schedule, and Mullen Dooley’s schedule — and this is a game between either a 2-3 or 3-2 State team and an undefeated Tennessee team.
That’s why this one adds up to a “must win.”
Sure, it’s on the road in the SEC — even if it’s Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, with a capacity just over 55,000 — and it’s in primetime.
Don’t cast State off as a team that’s talentless. But it’s a team that seemingly hasn’t been tested.
And a peak into Tennessee’s remaining schedule shows just two major tests left beyond Starkville.
Top-ranked Alabama comes to town next week. The week after that is a trip to No. 3 South Carolina. Those are two beyond tall tasks.
But November looks like what should be a 4-0 month with just Missouri (3-3), Troy (3-3), Kentucky (1-5) and Vanderbilt (2-3) standing between Dooley and a bowl berth.
That brings us back to tonight.
Where a win against a ranked team, an SEC win in October, and a win on the road outside the state of Tennessee — all things Dooley is yet to do midway through his third season in Knoxville — could be the difference between 7-5 and 8-4.
You don’t have to remind Smith, or the Tennessee team in general, the importance of tonight.
“I think we all know it,” Smith said. “I think everybody knows it, our fan base knows it. It is out there.
“Tennessee needs to win a ball game, a good ball game.”
And it’s more than just winning a ball game.
The difference in seven and eight wins may seem small from here, but a bowl win turns an eight-win season into a nine-win season. Something the Vols haven’t had since 2007.
That starts tonight, with a “must win” in Starkville.
Grant Ramey is a sports writer at The Daily Times. He can be reached at (email@example.com) You can follow him on Twitter @TDT_Sports.