Derek Dooley is on the hot seat. There’s no getting around it. After going 6-7 in 2010 and 5-7 in 2011 and losing to Kentucky for the first time in 26 years, Dooley has one more shot to show the Big Orange Nation that he can get the Vols over the hump and back to a championship level. We can sit here and debate all day whether he deserves 4 years regardless of this year’s outcome, but the fact of the matter is he’s on the hot seat and this year the Vols need to show that they’re capable of going somewhere or ties have to be cut.
Can Dooley get the Vols back? That is a question that no one has an answer to. Dooley was head coach at Louisiana Tech for three seasons before heading to Knoxville to take over for Lane Kiffin. In his three seasons in Ruston, Dooley went 17-20 and had 1 bowl win (Independence Bowl 17-10 over Northern Illinois). He had only one winning season and never finished better than a tie for 2nd in the Western Athletic Conference. Other than those three seasons at Louisiana Tech, Dooley has never been a head coach so we really don’t have a track record to look at to know whether or not he’ll be able to do it.
Some would argue that Cuonzo Martin didn’t have a track record before he came to UT to be Men’s Basketball Coach. But, they’re wrong. Yes, Martin was the Head Coach at Missouri State for only three seasons, but while he was there the program got consistently better each season. His first season, the Bears went 11-20 and went 3-15 in the traditionally tough Missouri Valley Conference. In his second season, we saw a vast improvement for the Bears as they went 24-12 overall with a 8-10 record the MVC that included winning the CollegeInsider.com Post-season tournament. His third season saw the Bears go 26-9 overall with a 15-3 mark in conference and a Regular Season MVC Championship.
Derek Dooley has no such track record. Louisiana Tech never got better under his watch. They didn’t really get worse either. In fact, two years after he left, the Bulldogs went 8-5 and won the WAC Championship. You can say that LA Tech got better after Dooley left. But that’s not up for debate in this blog.
It’s been about the same here in Knoxville under Dooley. The Vols have not improved under Dooley, but when you break things down they’ve not gotten worse. Some would say they have gotten worse, especially when you look at the end of the season blunder that was the Kentucky game. But Dooley isn’t doing anything different than his predecessors did in Knoxville. Dooley has never defeated UT’s biggest rivals: Florida, Alabama or Georgia. Lane Kiffin lost to both Florida and Alabama, but did defeat Georgia. Before his firing during the 2008 season, Phillip Fulmer hadn’t defeated Florida since 2004, Alabama since 2006, and was only 3-6 versus Georgia since 2000. But, Tennessee is looking for improvements and winning, not the same old losing to our biggest rivals.
So, the question is: Can Derek Dooley show that he can return UT to a championship level? He must answer this question in 2012. How will he answer it? First, the Vols must win a big game.
Florida seems to be the best shot for the Vols on the schedule. The Gators were 7-6 in 2011 and seem to have more questions than answers heading into this season. The Gators must venture into Knoxville which should be an advantage for the Volunteers. But anyone who is a Vol fan knows the troubles the Vols have had winning against the Gators in Knoxville (Florida is 5-1 in their last 6 trips to Neyland). But, with Alabama reloading, South Carolina and Georgia starting the season picked to compete for the SEC East Title, it seems the Vols best shot at a big win is against the Gators.
Second, Dooley and UT must avoid a bad October. Tennessee is 1-8 in October under Dooley. The lone win came last October against Buffalo. Blowout losses to Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina and a tough loss at LSU have sent the Vols reeling as they headed into the stretch run in both of the last two seasons. For Dooley to avoid getting the ax in 2012, he’ll need to avoid going 0-4 in October. UT will face three tough SEC opponents: at Mississippi State, at home versus Alabama and on the road against South Carolina.
I believe Tennessee will be 4-1 heading into October. If he can escape October with a 5-3 record then it will set him up for a run in November against such opponents as Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. If the Vols go 0-3 in October and look ugly in those games, you can expect more of the “here we go again” feeling to surround the UT Football program. Will the players quit again because they aren’t interested in going to a lower-tier bowl game? Will Vol fans abandon hope and give up on the Vols, leaving Neyland Stadium’s upper deck scarcely populated for the last three home games?
Finally, I believe UT and Dooley must win at least 7 games in the regular season for him to show he is turning the program around. If Dooley goes .500 or worse it’s time to cut bait. 7 wins shouldn’t be hard for this team. You have 3 automatic wins over Georgia State, Akron and Troy. You have two other games that you would think should be wins in Vanderbilt and Kentucky. That’s 5 wins right there. If the Vols are as good as some people think they are, then they should beat Mississippi State on the road, Florida at home and slip up and win a game against Georgia or South Carolina. The Vols WILL NOT defeat Alabama. Mark it down. If the Vols can do that then that will show both Vol Nation and the administration at UT that Dooley may be capable of turning UT around and deserves 1-2 more years in Knoxville.
This blog isn’t an anti-Dooley blog or one of my usual rants against him. I hope the guy can get it done. Why would I want UT to go through another coaching search (their third since 2008)? But, if the Vols can’t win a big game, have a bad October and can’t win at least 7 games, then that will prove to me that Dooley can’t get it done and the Vols will have no other choice than to cut bait and move on to someone else.