KNOXVILLE -- How Tennessee fares in its so-called "second season" could determine whether Derek Dooley gets a fourth season as the Volunteers' coach.
After Tennessee fell 38-35 to South Carolina on Saturday to lose to a Top 25 opponent for the fourth straight game, Dooley said the Vols must view their last four games as a second season. Tennessee (3-5) hosts Troy and Missouri the next two weeks, travels to Vanderbilt on Nov. 17 and returns home for a Nov. 24 regular-season finale with Kentucky.
"It's all pretty clear that the legacy of this team and the character of this team is going to be defined by how we compete these last four games," Dooley said.
Tennessee could be favored in each of those last four games. If the Vols avoid any more losses, they would go 7-5 and clinch their first winning season in Dooley's three-year tenure.
"It's like the playoffs for us, pretty much," sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt said. "We're trying to win out."
Whether that would be enough for Dooley to keep his job remains uncertain.
Dooley said he speaks more than once a week with athletic director Dave Hart. Dooley was hired by Mike Hamilton, Hart's predecessor. Hart isn't commenting on questions about Dooley's future.
"Dave's been great and very professional," Dooley said. "He obviously wants to know my take on where we are, what we're doing well, what we're not doing well and how we're going to fix it."
Dooley owns a 14-19 record that includes a 4-17 record in SEC competition and an 0-15 mark against the Top 25. Tennessee has gone 1-12 in the SEC over the last two years.
Although it isn't reflected in their record, the Vols have improved this year.
Last year, Tennessee was outscored by an average margin of 19.4 points in its seven SEC losses. This year, Tennessee's only blowout loss was a 44-13 decision against Alabama. In each of its other four defeats, Tennessee had a chance to win in the fourth quarter.
All five teams to beat Tennessee are ranked: No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 Georgia, No. 8 Florida, No. 11 South Carolina and No. 17 Mississippi State. Those five teams own a combined record of 36-5. Tennessee's four remaining opponents are a combined 13-20.
"We feel like we can win all four of these games," sophomore offensive tackle Antonio Richardson said. "They're very winnable. All these teams are very beatable. We've just got to do what we've got to do."
Dooley can't afford a repeat of last year, when the Vols finished a 5-7 season with a 10-7 loss to Kentucky that ended Tennessee's 26-game winning streak in that annual series.
"You just knew (last year) there were times when players didn't believe in the coach and the coaches didn't believe in the players," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said. "When you've got that, it's a recipe for disaster. That's what happened. I'm pretty sure it's not going to happen this year. We have a real close bunch. The players believe in the coach. The coaches believe in the players. We know what we're doing wrong. We know what we've got to correct."
Most of the corrections must be made on defense.
Tennessee has allowed 33.9 points per game, its highest average since the 1893 team yielded 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. The Vols have given up at least 37 points in each of their five SEC games under new coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"We're not going to sit there and defend everything we're doing because statistically we can't," Dooley said. "I think the important thing is - and it's what I told Sal - we've got to get our focus on solutions and playing better next week. That's all you can put your energy on. You can't look back and beat yourself up. You can't lose confidence in what we're doing and how we're teaching it. We've got to work together to find solutions as players and as coaches, to play better. That's all you can put energy on."
The Vols must maintain that focus without dwelling on questions about Dooley's job security.
"It's not a distraction," Maggitt said. "We don't worry about that. We don't talk about it. Even off the field, none of the guys I'm hanging around with, we never discuss it. We're just out here playing, trying to get better and correct our mistakes. We're in season, Coach Dooley's here and we're trying to play our best for him and give him everything we have."
Notes: Tailback Rajion Neal and offensive guard Zach Fulton are day-to-day with ankle injuries, leaving their status uncertain for Saturday's game with Troy. Neal has missed two straight games. Fulton didn't play against South Carolina. ... Richardson disclosed Monday that he played the South Carolina game at less than full strength after injuring his knee against Alabama a week earlier. South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney sacked Tyler Bray to force a fumble the Gamecocks recovered at their own 20 with 1:08 remaining Saturday after Richardson had held the All-America candidate in check for the first 58 minutes. Richardson didn't go into detail about the injury, but he said he's healthy enough to play.