Vol Karma: Breaking the Groundhog Day Syndrome
In the first half, the Tennessee defense held Missouri to 7 points (scored on a kickoff return for a TD), only 27 snaps, no big plays (none >20 yards), no Red Zone visits, only 4 first downs, and only 64 total yards.
Then, after taking the second-half opening kickoff, Kendial Lawrence ran a rather simple misdirection running play up the middle for 77 yards and a TD.
It cut the Tennessee lead to 21-14.
It cut a big hole in what confidence Sal Sunseri’s defensive troops may have gathered during the opening half.
It cut open the floodgates of the habit of losing.
The mind of an athlete — or of anybody else for that matter — is a delicate thing. It is a creature of habit. It receives information, and by processing that information, with the lens of experience, creates a never-ending perception-response cycle. That cycle is called karma.
Karma creates our perceptions of the world. It is all-powerful. It is the world’s ultimate creator. It makes good people do good. It makes killers kill.
It is what made Phil Connors — the fictional weatherman in the movie Groundhog Day — wake up every morning to the same series of events. It wasn’t until he was urged to instill different mental habits that he was able to break out of his self-induced time loop.
It is karma that makes winners win. It also makes losers lose.
So it started to unravel for the Vols.
The Lawrence run seemed to bring everybody back to earth (I was certainly thinking that the defense had ‘simplified’ things to the point of success).
On Mizzou’s next possession, the Tigers had what looked to be a scoring drive interrupted by a fumble that was run back from Tennessee territory to the Missouri 31 yard line. The Vols scored in three plays to get back to a 2-TD margin.
But the dye had already been cast, and the fabric was soaking wet.
On the next possession, the Vols couldn’t stop the Tigers on a 4th and 1 (Mizzou was 4-for-5 on 4th down conversions on the afternoon), and then Missouri executed their second big play (>20 yds) of the afternoon — a 40-yard pass completion to Bud Sasser — to get within Tennessee’s 10 yard line. It was touchdown Tigers three plays later to make it a one score game once again.
Much of the final quarter was a bit of a slog-fest. The Tennessee defense once again teased the viewer into believing.
So it was when Mizzou embarked on their final possession of the 4th quarter with 4:43 left. After a first down, QB James Franklin — the one with a bum knee — had finally found his footing in the second half with a calmness and perserverence. He scrambled for a 23-yard run to get his Tigers into Tennessee territory. And on yet another 4th down situation at the Vols’ 40 yard line (this one a 4th and 9), Franklin hit Marcus Lucas for a 17 yard gain to the Tennessee 23.
More Tennessee Defense Tease.
Runs for -6, +1, and +3 yards put the Tigers in another 4th down at the Vol 25 yard line. Franklin took the ensuing snap, looked for a receiver, couldn’t find one, and then saw that an orange shirt bite on a decoy receiver on a short route. That left acres of room down the left sideline for WR Dorial Green-Beckham. Franklin threw a perfect pass to the receiver who caught the ball in the endzone while putting his toes in ballet-position-three just east of the west sideline, while gracefully tilting to the ground. An improbable tie game at the last moment of regulation time.
Four wild, eventful overtime periods later, Andrew Baggett made a game-winning 35-yard field goal.
Overshadowed in the loss were some great performances, led by Mychal Rivera’s 10 receptions for 129 yards and a TD, his best day as a Volunteer. There was Tyler Bray’s 404 yards of passing with 4 TDs and 0 INTs, inching him incredibly closer to Peyton Manning’s career mark (Bray could ‘easily’ break the record with a couple of 300-yard passing games in the final two games — he is only 603 yards away from that school record).
But all of the good went out the window with the overpowering bad.
The Vols couldn’t ‘finish’. They haven’t been able to finish off any decent opponent this season. In fact, Tennessee was within 7 points in the forth quarter in their games against Florida, Georgia, Miss State, USC, and Mizzou and have no win to show for their efforts.
Yet another conference loss, putting Tennessee at the 0-6 SEC mark for the second consecutive season, now has Derek Dooley holding this statistic: In the 80 years of SEC play, Dooley’s not-quite three seasons have produced enough SEC losses to account for 10% of Tennessee’s total conference-game losses. [My count is Dooley has 18 SEC losses in 3 years; the Vols have a total of 181 in 80 years.]
It is now clear to me that the only likely cure for the karma of this collection of players, and of this football program — which has become completely irrelevant in the greatest conference in the land — is for Dooley to be relieved of his duties as head coach of Tennessee. I see no other course of action.
It could be shortly, or it could be after the Kentucky game, or it could be immediately after a bowl game appearance (if Tennessee wins its last two games). But no matter, it simply has to be.
Reports that appear to be potentially reputable indicate that Dooley will not be back at the helm in 2013. However, the school has made no announcement regarding an imminent firing or a date for such an event. If/when it does happen this year, the university will have to pay $5 million to Dooley over a three-year period just to negate his contract which doesn’t expire until after the 2016 season. Buying out Dooley’s staff will cost even more, perhaps another couple of million. But I don’t think that will be an impediment to acting on getting Dooley out of the picture — donors could pay that bill, and have been reported to be chomping at the bit to do just that.
I do not believe that Dooley will be fired before the end of the Kentucky game. But I do believe that he will be fired this year eventually, regardless of the outcome of the final two games. If Tennessee defeats Vandy and Kentucky, the Vols will be bowl eligible, and I believe that Dooley would be allowed to coach that game — his last. However, a loss in Nashville would prompt action immediately after the Kentucky game. Dave Hart has been adamant that he would take no action until after the completion of any season, and I have no reason not to believe him.
Dooley was an ’emergency hire’ in January 2010 after the sudden departure of Lane Kiffin. The positive spin is to say that Dooley was a band aid, stemming the continual degradation of the program’s image. The cynical spin is to say that Dooley has been a complete disaster, setting back the program even further. The truth, likely somewhere in between, will be debated over future seasons as a new coaching staff will attempt to do what is most crucial: make Tennessee relevant within the conference and on the national stage once again.