KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley returned to the sidelines less than two weeks after undergoing surgery on a fractured right hip. His team might have to make an equally remarkable comeback to assure that he keeps his job.
The Volunteers' 44-13 loss to top-ranked Alabama on Saturday continued Tennessee's run of misery against ranked foes and Southeastern Conference opponents during Dooley's three-year tenure.
Tennessee has lost 11 of its last 12 SEC games and has gone 0-14 against the Top 25 under Dooley. The Vols haven't beaten a Top 25 opponent since defeating No. 21 South Carolina 31-13 on Oct. 31, 2009.
The Vols (3-4, 0-4 SEC) have dropped three straight games and four of their last five overall, with all the losses coming against ranked SEC foes. Tennessee must pull an upset Saturday at South Carolina to avoid a winless October.
"What I don't want is their morale to get down," Dooley said. "It's hard when you lose. It is. Don't get me wrong. It's not like we're going to have a lot of pep in our step, but that's our job as coaches, to get them ready to play."
Dooley said after the Alabama game that he believed he still had the support of school administration. Dooley's job security isn't necessarily foremost on the mind of Tennessee's players.
"I feel like in this moment that's not something we're thinking about right now," junior center James Stone said. "We're just trying to play for this team, play for everybody in this organization and trying to turn this season around."
Dooley was back on the field Saturday after coaching from the press box last week in a 41-31 loss at Mississippi State. Although there was a stool on the sideline for him, Dooley instead stood and watched the game on crutches.
That gave him a closer look at the Tennessee defense's continued struggles.
Tennessee has allowed 33.3 points per game overall and 43.3 points per game in SEC competition. The Vols rank 95th nationally in total defense and 96th in scoring defense. They're last in the SEC in both categories.
Dooley also saw his offense play its worst game of the season against an Alabama team that leads the nation in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense. The Vols averaged 2.9 yards per carry. Tyler Bray went 13-of-27 for 184 yards with two interceptions and no touchdown passes.
"We've got a lot of ball ahead," Dooley said. "We can't just stick our heads in our tail and go home. You've got to go play. And we'll do it. We'll recover."
Tennessee's schedule gives the Vols an opportunity to recover after they return from South Carolina. Tennessee's last four games are home dates with Troy and Missouri, a trip to Vanderbilt and a home game with Kentucky. The Vols could be favored in each of those games.
"We want to finish out the season real well," junior wide receiver Justin Hunter said. "We really don't think about Coach's job. We just think about our team and what we need to do."
Tennessee owns a 14-18 record since Dooley arrived in 2010. His first two years produced Tennessee's first two consecutive losing seasons since the Vols posted three straight losing years from 1909-11.
Tennessee at least has been more competitive this year, though its improvement isn't reflected in its record. Each of the Vols' first three losses wasn't decided until the fourth quarter.
"I think that Derek is doing a fantastic job," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They have been better and better every year that we've played them."
Dooley worked on Saban's staff at LSU from 2000-04 and with the Miami Dolphins from 2005-06. He can only hope his current bosses feel the same way as his former employer.