KNOXVILLE – With the aid of crutches, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley slowly hobbled into his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon.
He stopped to quickly catch his breath after his short, but now difficult, journey from his office to the team meeting room, where the conference is conducted. He’s less than a week removed from undergoing hip surgery, and the Vols are coming off another disappointing loss on Saturday.
Dooley looked tired, his voice was somewhat raspy and there was a slightly somber tone to his weekly 30-minute-or-so talk to the media.
He’s a picture of the current state of the Vols’ football team.
It has lost three straight SEC games, 10 of 11 conference games dating back to last season, and it now will prepare to face Alabama and South Carolina in the next two weeks. Planning for the Crimson Tide, a team ranked No. 1 in the initial BCS ranking, will be the next task for the now 3-3 (0-3 SEC) Vols.
“There really are (no weakness),” Dooley said of the 6-0 (3-0 SEC) Crimson Tide. “They have absolutely annihilated everybody that they have played – physically and on the scoreboard. They are deep, they are talented, they just change jersey numbers every year, but the guys all look the same.
“They draft, we recruit...and they get the first 25 picks of the draft.”
But Dooley, and the rest of the Vols, are vowing to fight on in the face of an all-too-familiar letdown season thus far. Despite increasing negativity from outside of the program, Dooley is preaching an inward focus for the team as it prepares the best team in the nation this week.
The Vols have been within striking distance in the second half of each loss this season, and Dooley believes they can be just as competitive against the Tide if they can remain focused.
“My biggest concern is us,” he said. “If we can go out and play to our capacity for 60 minutes, we can find ourselves right in that position we have been in every week. And I believe that."
Added sophomore left tackle Tiny Richardson: "The thing is no matter how much adversity you face, you have to come in every week with the mindset to get better. You can't just drag around.”
Dooley acknowledged the increased chatter about his job security and the overall negativity from fans and the media toward his team. An anti-Dooley message was spray-painted on the “The Rock” on UT’s campus over the weekend. Fans have taken to message boards, radio and social media to voice their displeasure over the current team’s progress.
“I mentioned it,” Dooley said.“The first thing you have to do is understand that we have an incredibly passionate fan base. You have all heard me say it: You can't have it both ways. You can't say to come and scream and have 102,000, all these people at the Vol Walk and not have an expectation of performance and results. That's how it is.”
Injury update: A rash of injuries sustained at Mississippi State will make Saturday’s task against Alabama even more daunting.
The most notable injury is to starting running back Rajion Neal. Neal has an issue with his ankle, and Dooley said he will be “doubtful” for Saturday. Dooley doesn’t expect Neal to miss an extensive amount of time, though.
Linebacker Curt Maggitt, who has already been dealing with a turf toe, also has a stinger and will be questionable for Saturday. Quarterback Tyler Bray (knee) was limited on Monday, but he’s probable for Alabama.
Running back Marlin Lane (quad) and cornerback Justin Coleman (head) are both probable. Lane could be in line to start at tailback if Neal can’t go this week.
Dooley said it is "probable" he will coach from the press box again this weekend. When asked to go into more detail on how he sustained his hip injury, he suggested that it initially happened while water skiing over the summer, but it got progressively worse throughout the fall because he didn't go to the doctor.
Game times set: The Vols’ game against South Carolina on Oct. 27 will have a noon ET kickoff, and will be televised by ESPN. The Alabama game this week will start at 7 p.m. ET, and will also be on ESPN.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.