In his third year as Tennessee head football coach, there is no doubt 2012 will be a crucial and pivotal year for the former Louisiana Tech coach. Since his arrival in Knoxville, Dooley has amassed an 11-14 record which, depending on which Volunteers fan you ask, is more than enough to send the son of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley packing. Still, others say the record could well be worse, and only time will tell whether the hire by former athletics director Mike Hamilton was the right one.
There is no question there are many questions still to be answered in Knoxville, particularly since Tennessee is coming off a year that ended with the Volunteers losing to Kentucky for the first time in 26 years and failing to reach a bowl game.
It has to be understood also, Dooley wasn’t exactly dealt the high hand at the table when he took the job. Everyone knows all too well the strange and terrible saga of the firing of Phillip Fulmer and the sudden departure of Fulmer’s replacement Lane Kiffin.
Enter Derek Dooley, who has spent the last two years filling the cracks and rebuilding the foundation left in shambles by the departure of his two predecessors. But, you certainly have to give some credit to Dooley who surely knew, to at least some extent, the mountain he was facing upon his arrival in Knoxville. But, who could have forseen how seriously attrition during the 2011 season would affect an already depleted roster? Injuries to stars Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray all but spelled doom for Tennessee last year, piling on even more to the rantings of the “Negavol” crowd who feel Dooley should already have been tossed out on the seat of his orange pants. Add the injuries to an already inconsistent offensive line and the formula for failure was in full blend.
This time around, Dooley has yet again put together a solid class of recruits headlined by junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson at wide receiver. He also returns nearly 20 starters.
That’s all well and good, but in this world of “What have you done for me lately?” the Volunteers’ coach may still find himself in a bit of a precarious position.
Dooley was also forced to replace seven assistant coaches who bolted after last year’s 5-7 record for various reasons. Again, it appears as though the Man in Orange has made some pretty impressive upgrades not the least of which is defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, who’s no-nonsense approach to the game seems to have caught on with the team. Sunseri will run his defense out of a 3-4 base which will obviously take a bit of getting used to, but could play well in the grand scheme of things.
Though there will be some adjustments made with players and new coaches, especially on defense, things are finally looking up a bit for Dooley and the Volunteers headed into the Aug. 31 opener against North Carolina State, in the Georgia Dome.
The schedule, for one, is more favorable this time around for the Vols. LSU and Arkansas are nowhere to be found on the schedule and Florida and Alabama will be met in the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium. It looks as though, on paper at least with seven home games, Tennessee has a chance to win eight games this season even without beating Florida, although a win over the hated Gators would improve the psyche of the current Tennessee Volunteers fans immensely.
Also in Knoxville, UT will host Georgia State, Akron, Troy, SEC newcomer Missouri and Kentucky, from whom the Volunteers are expected to exact nothing but revenge. Georgia will be the first road trip after three straight home games open the season. The Bulldogs are followed by the Bulldogs from Mississippi State in Starkville. The Vols will also travel to Columbia to play South Carolina and Nashville to try and continue teaching the Commodores who their big brother is.
But, what if Dooley doesn’t win eight games this season? What if he wins seven and loses the rest by a total of nine points. What if he wins six after another serious round of attrition decimates the roster? What if the bodies lying below Neyland Stadium rise up in a zombie apocalypse and decimate the entire starting lineup, both offense and defense? (But, in reality, if those guys can’t outrun a bunch of dead people, then Dooley seriously needs to re-evaluate his recruiting methods.) What if I win the lottery and find myself on a sunny South Pacific island in a hammock under a palm tree?
But, I digress.
There is no question Tennessee must make positive strides in 2012, be it winning the correct number of games to make every Vols fan at least a little bit happy or making a bowl game or simply being the competitive Tennessee football team fans have come to expect since General Neyland.
I for one, think the program is back on the right track. And, although I lose my patience as much as any true fan, I am still a true fan. I understand things like this take time and Dooley has had to rebuild this program from the ground up. In a conversation I had with Dooley’s father just after Derek was hired to lead the Vols, the elder Dooley said his son was more prepared to take over a program like Tennessee than he was when Georgia hired him to run the Bulldogs’ program, and it would take at least five years to get things completely turned around.
And I suppose I said all that to say this: We are closing in on a new season. Coach Dooley has the best team he has had since coming to Tennessee. Will we see improvement? I say yes. Will be improve enough to beat Alabama? I say I don’t know. I surely hope so, but I’m not betting on it. How about Florida? I’m leaning toward Tennessee.
The Southeastern Conference is the most competitive conference in the country. Anything less than eight or 10 winns is barely acceptable ... for any programs other than Vanderbilt or Kentucky. Improvement, however, is not always seen in the won/loss column. Unfortunately, here in the SEC it’s how it is measured. Hopefully, Dooley will get at least those eight wins and the ship will stay on course for a while.
Richard Roberts is Sports Editor for the Cleveland Daily Banner. Contact him at Richard.Roberts@clevelandbanner.com