Might Dooley’s Vols be the SEC’s sleeper squad?

Published on June 14 at 3:33 p.m. Eastern.

By Brian Edwards

Seven years ago, I prematurely wrote Rich Brooks’s pink slip at Kentucky. Brooks went on to do an incredible job at UK and I made every effort to point that out after being so wrong during the third year of his stay in Lexington.

Where am I going with this? Well, the same thing might be happening with Derek Dooley in Knoxville.

Take a look at your preseason magazines and they all mention Dooley toward the top of head coaches on the hot seat going into 2012.

Fair? Not really. Unfair? Nope, coaches are hired to be fired.

With that said, has Dooley really done a poor job?

First of all, he inherited a mess. In addition to looming NCAA sanctions, his roster was filled with upperclassmen that were Fulmer Guys and underclassmen that lacked discipline and came to Tennessee to play for Lane Kiffin.

Fulmer’s dismissal and Kiffin’s sudden exit to another job left a group of confused and angry players. When Dooley was hired despite being the fifth or sixth choice of former Vols AD Mike Hamilton, he was left with the challenging task of winning his players over.

In his first year, the results were decent and they could’ve been excellent (considering the circumstances, that is) if not for a pair of unlucky breaks. On two occasions, Dooley shook another head coach’s hand (LSU’s Les Miles in Baton Rouge and UNC’s Butch Davis) at midfield thinking he was the winner, only to have instant-replay reviews put time back on the clock and change the end result.

If not for those controversial finishes, UT finishes 2010 on a five-game winning streak with an 8-5 overall record. Instead, the Vols finished below .500 at 6-7.

Then in 2011, sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray and sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter both looked like first-team All-SEC candidates after leading UT to blowout wins over Montana and Cincinnati. But in Week 3 at The Swamp, Hunter tore his ACL in the first half against the Gators.

Two weeks later, Bray broke his thumb in a nail-biter against Georgia. Therefore, Dooley’s second team was staring at a three-game stretch vs. LSU, at Alabama and vs. South Carolina without its two best players, one being its star QB.

The results were predictable. The Vols scored a grand total of 16 points and scored one touchdown in losses to the Tigers, Crimson Tide and Gamecocks.

Unless you have an entire roster stacked with nothing but 4 and 5-star talents (think Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa), it doesn’t matter who you are. If you lose the two best talents on your squad for most of the season, you’re most likely going to struggle.

Much has been made of the changes Dooley has made to his staff, as seven of the nine on-field coaches from last year are gone. Some left on their own accord with the thinking that better job security for the future could be found elsewhere.

But when you’re coming off a 5-7 year, is change on your staff a bad thing? I think fresh voices and attitudes are a positive.

Now, to be clear, I’m not implying that Dooley is the next General Neyland, Johnny Majors or Fulmer. But I’m definitely saying that he’s not Ron Zook, who was clearly in over his head at Florida and was fired in the middle of his third season when things went south.

In Knoxville, many believe new AD Dave Hart (a total ass who has only made one major hire as an AD – Steve Robinson in hoops at FSU! How’d that work out, Dave?) has Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart targeted to lead UT into the future.

Those same folks are thinking anything less than 9-3 is unacceptable this year. To those I say the same thing I said when Fulmer was being run out of town: “Careful what you wish for.”

That’s because 9-3 isn’t out of the question. Assuming Bray and Hunter stay healthy and play to an elite level, Tennessee could be the sleeper squad in the SEC East.

Gone from the schedule are LSU and Arkansas, replaced by Missouri and Mississippi St. Alabama and Florida have to come to Neyland Stadium. There are only four true road games on the schedule with seven at home and one in Atlanta (vs. N.C. St. in the opener).

Translation: Instead of being the year that seals Dooley’s fate in Knoxville, 2012 could be the season that’s a turning point in his tenure at Tennessee.

Share this post: