They say "It's better to be lucky than good." That's probably small consolation to Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley, who seemingly couldn't buy a break with Donald Trump's money. Saturday's 38-35 loss at South Carolina is merely the latest example.
First, a brief recap: Dooley saw two 2010 victories (versus LSU, versus North Carolina) turned into losses when time was put back on the game clock, giving the Tigers and Tar Heels do-overs that they exploited. His 2011 season was doomed when he lost his two best defensive players (safety Janzen Jackson, linebacker Herman Lathers) before the season began and lost his two best offensive players (wideout Justin Hunter, quarterback Tyler Bray) within the first five games.
You figured the law of averages would give Dooley some good fortune in 2012 but that has not been the case thus far. Due to SEC expansion, a scheduled home game with Arkansas was transformed into a road game at Mississippi State. Heading into today's action Mississippi State was 7-0 and ranked No. 11 nationally. After losing at home to Ole Miss earlier today, Arkansas stands 3-5.
Dooley apparently broke a mirror prior to Saturday's loss at South Carolina. With the score tied at 7, a Connor Shaw fumble on the first play of the second quarter should've given Tennessee the ball in Carolina territory. Tennessee's Willie Bohannon was called for a horse-collar tackle, however, nullifying the fumble and giving the ball back to the Gamecocks. Three plays later, on second-and-10 at Tennessee's 19-yard line, Shaw hurriedly uncorked a pass over the middle that landed 20 yards from the nearest Gamecock. Incredibly, intentional grounding was not called. Carolina parlayed those two huge breaks into a touchdown that produced a 14-7 lead it never relinquished.
Bottom line: Dooley's record at Tennessee (14-19 overall, 4-17 SEC) is bad but his luck may be even worse.
Where the game was lost
Tied 7-7 early in the second quarter, Tennessee seemed to be in great shape. Michael Palardy shanked an 11-yard punt, however, that gave Carolina the ball at Tennessee's 48-yard line.
Despite the questionable horse-collar call on Bohannon and the controversial no-call on intentional grounding, Tennessee still had an excellent chance to preserve the tie score when a false start penalty and a 13-yard Curt Maggitt sack left the Gamecocks facing third-and-goal at their 26-yard line. A breakdown in the Big Orange secondary, however, enabled South Carolina tight end Rory Anderson to reel in a touchdown pass that produced a 14-7 lead, energized the home crowd and disheartened the Vols. They surrendered a four-play, 64-yard touchdown drive moments later that widened their deficit to 21-7.
The big picture
To their credit, Tennessee's players showed some heart in fighting back from 21-7, 28-14 and 35-21 deficits to make the South Carolina game interesting. That should earn some good will from the fan base, despite a 3-5 overall record and an 0-5 SEC record.
If the Vols wish to maintain that good will, however, they need to give their best effort in the four remaining games — versus Troy, versus Missouri, at Vanderbilt and versus Kentucky. Tennessee fans can abide losing; they cannot tolerate quitting, as the Big Orange did in last season's finale at Kentucky.
Whether Dooley is a lame-duck coach or not, the Vols owe it to their coaches and their fans to try and go 4-0 in November. That won't salvage the season but it might salvage what's left of their pride.
Players of the game
With South Carolina's defense keying on Vol wideouts Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, the unheralded Rogers turned in a career performance that nearly won the game. He caught six balls for 107 yards, including touchdown receptions of 8, 37 and 22 yards. Moreover, the three catches that didn't produce TDs produced first downs. Bray deserves honorable mention for going 27 of 43 for 368 yards and four TDs against one of the top 10 defenses in college football.
The senior linebacker has struggled lately but he brought his A-game in this one. Lathers was credited with 15 tackles, including a sack. He also intercepted a pass and knocked SC quarterback Connor Shaw out of the game for one play with a thunderous third-quarter hit.
The Trojans dropped to 4-4 by losing 34-27 Saturday on the road to a Florida Atlantic team that brought a 1-6 record into the game. Troy went into the contest ranked 18th nationally in passing offense, averaging 303.1 yards per game. Trojan quarterbacks Corey Robinson (15 of 32, 211 yards) and Deon Anthony (2 of 3, 6 yards) combined to complete just 17 of 35 attempts for 217 yards against Florida Atlantic, however. Meanwhile, Troy's pass defense gave up 26 completions in 40 attempts for 261 yards and four passing touchdowns.