KNOXVILLE – Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray was on his way to record-breaking numbers after lighting up NC State and Georgia State in the season’s first two games.
Then the SEC schedule began.
It’s been a different story since. Bray has been outplayed by every opposing conference quarterback, and that was clearly the case again on Saturday in Tennessee’s 44-13 loss to Alabama. Bray completed just 13 of his 27 (48.1 percent) pass attempts for 184 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His counterpart, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, had a career high with 306 yards and tied a career high of four touchdowns.
“I don’t know,” Dooley said when asked if he considered pulling Bray, who did not speak to the media after the game, early. “He was a little jumpy early. He didn’t even look good early. I thought he played his way out of it, hit a couple of good balls. (He was) throwing balls early, getting them batted – he never gets balls batted – so I don’t know. He’s got to play well for us to score points.”
Bray’s numbers have varied significantly in and out of the conference. In four SEC games, he has completed 72-of-140 attempts (51.4 percent) for 870 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. In three out-of-conference matchups, he has completed 72-of-104 passes (69.2 percent) for 1,044 yards, ten touchdowns and just one interception.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter could have helped Bray’s numbers against Alabama, but he dropped what appeared to be a certain long reception with under one minute left in the first half.
“He’s had more drops than he should on Saturdays,” Dooley said of Hunter. “He hasn’t had a lot in practice.”
Injury update: Starting right guard Zach Fulton left the game favoring his leg. Dooley did not have an immediate update on his status after the game.
As expected, Rajion Neal sat out with an injured ankle. Dooley said he could have played in an emergency situation, but he didn’t practice in the past week and thus had little chance at being effective. Linebacker Curt Maggitt (stinger, turf toe) played most of the game despite being limited in practice this week.
Dooley, perhaps ignoring the advice of his doctors, did coach from the sideline on crutches. A team manager carried a bench behind him that Dooley sat on during breaks in the action.
Votes of confidence?: Dooley was asked in his postgame press conference if he thinks he has the support of the Tennessee administration. “Yes” was his one-word answer.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has defeated Dooley by an average of 31 points in their three meetings, said he saw progress from the Vols on Saturday despite the lopsided final score.
“I think Tennessee’s team really played hard,” Saban said. “I think that Derek is doing a fantastic job. They have been better and better every year that we’ve played them.”
Added Tennessee center James Stone: “At this moment we are not thinking about (Dooley’s job). We are just trying to play for this team and everybody in this organization to turn this season around.”
Sunseri reunion: Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri shared a moment and a hug with his son, Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri, after the game.
“My dad came up to me and said some stuff that was really touching,” Vinnie, who was credited with six tackles, said. “That hit me deep. I am so proud of him, and I love the guy. I wish the best for him at all times . It wasn’t too tough. It was a very professional performance.”
. Coming into the game, Alabama had allowed its opponents only eight trips inside the red zone, with those opponents scoring points on only four of those trips. The Vols made four trips into the red zone in this game and scored on three of them.
. The Vols used linebacker A.J. Johnson in the Wildcat twice, with mixed results. He scored their lone touchdown on a three-yard run, but he was also stopped on a fourth-and-one in the third quarter.
. Saturday’s attendance was 102,455, officially a sellout. It was roughly 25 to 30 percent Alabama fans in attendance.
. Former coach Phillip Fulmer and the 1997 Tennessee SEC Championship team were both honored before the game.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.