Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley has adopted a simple mantra for his Volunteers this season: continue looking ahead.
A year ago, the Volunteers entered their annual matchup against Georgia with a 3-1 record, their only loss to Florida. After leading at halftime against the Bulldogs, quarterback Tyler Bray suffered a broken thumb, and Tennessee folded as the Bulldogs outlasted the Vols 20-12 in Neyland Stadium.
From there, the Volunteers proceeded to tailspin, losing four straight in October and winning just one of its final six SEC games.
Fast forward to 2012.
Sitting at 3-1 overall and 0-1 in the SEC, Dooley knows the opportunities—and the challenges—at stake this Saturday against No. 5 Georgia.
“Every time you have a big challenge, there’s always that opportunity that sits there with it,” said Dooley in a teleconference Wednesday. “Every week you have a great opportunity, but it’s not going to be easy.”
This week, Tennessee’s opportunity comes with an especially tall order—beating a Georgia team that has defeated its first four opponents by an average of 31 points.
“This is probably the best team they’ve had in a while,” said Dooley, whose teams have been outscored 61-26 by Georgia in his two years as head coach. “They’re as explosive as they’ve ever been on offense, and they’re still playing great defense. It’s going to take 60 minutes of performing to your best, and [we’ll] see what happens.
Despite a disappointing 2011 season and an offseason that saw the dismissal of top wideout Da’Rick Rogers, Dooley insists his team is looking forward, not backward.
“This is a new football team,” said Dooley, who is 14-15 during his tenure at Tennessee. “This football team is not going to be held hostage for the things that have gone on over the last four years at Tennessee and the last two years when I’ve been here. It is a new team. We’ve really embraced that.”
So far, the “new team” approach has worked well for the Vols, who defeated North Carolina State 35-21 in the season opener and defeated Akron last week 47-26.
“We’ve played four games, and we’ve played three great second halves, one really good third quarter and one bad fourth quarter,” said Dooley, whose team dropped a heartbreaker to Florida 37-20 after leading by a touchdown midway through the third quarter. “I hope we can continue to build on the identity they’ve established in the first four games and correct a lot of mistakes we’ve made.”
Along with improving, Dooley hopes his team can earn a signature victory over one of the top teams in the SEC, like Georgia.
“That’s kind of our next step,” said Dooley. “We’re going to have to go out there and perform and beat one of these teams if that’s where we want to be.”
Dooley said that his team will not bask in a victory over Georgia for very long because another SEC team looms around the corner.
“If you [win], you can’t get too excited because it takes about a week before the next [team] rolls in,” said Dooley, whose team plays Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina in October. “If you don’t [win], you can’t get too down because there’s another one coming.
“There’s a lot of opportunity.”