The Tennessee football program will be watching bowl season from home, and Vols fans are already contemplating if head coach Derek Dooley can lead them back to prominence. Tennessee is historically a top ten football program, but that has been nowhere near the case for the last four years. Phil Fulmer had an amazing run from 1992-2004 before letting the program slip severely, missing the postseason in both 2005 and 2008. Enter the scorched-earth policy of Lane Kiffin, who cost the program massive personnel losses between running off players and recruiting others who were not fits in an academic or proper-behavior setting. Consequently, Derek Dooley inherited low scholarship numbers and was asked to clean things up from Kiffin’s recruiting “style”. Dooley seems to be everything that Tennessee wants as a leader, but the results on the field have been horrible. The Vols have dealt with extensive youth and injuries — including losing quarterback Tyler Bray and top receiver Justin Hunter for major parts of this season — over the last two years, but that does not explain his 11-14 Rocky Top record to many fans and college football observers.
Is Dooley already in trouble in Knoxville?
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think Dooley is in trouble, although I do not expect Tennessee to make a move this offseason and deal with the attrition of four coaches in five seasons. Dooley is a very likeable leader who does things the right way, but there are no indications that things will improve on The Hill. The Vols were young this season and did suffer key injuries, but those are reasons why you don’t compete with the SEC elite — not excuses for going 5-7 and playing lethargic, uninspired ball against Kentucky with your season on the line. There are some scary stats from Dooley’s second campaign — 117th in the country in rushing, 70th nationally in rushing defense, dead last in SEC games in scoring, rushing yards per carry (2.3) and rushing yards per game (63.5) — but the fact the Vols program seems much closer to Vanderbilt and Kentucky than it does to Alabama, LSU, Georgia, etc. is disconcerting on Rocky Top. This is not the first time in Tennessee’s storied history that it has faced the obstacles of youth and injuries, but it is the first time in a century (1910-11) that the Vols have had two consecutive losing seasons. Dooley is the type of coach you want to back, and he does compete in America’s toughest league. Maybe he can win eight or nine games next season and surprise us all, but there is no current reason to believe that will happen.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
I believe it’s fair to say that Derek Dooley will be on the hot seat in 2012, his third season in Knoxville. He didn’t inherit an ideal situation at Tennessee, but he has done nothing in his two seasons to prove that he is the long term answer for the Vols. In five years as a head coach (three at Louisiana Tech and two at UT), Dooley has a 16–24 record in conference play. In his two seasons at Tennessee, he is 4¬–12 in the SEC, with two wins over Vanderbilt and one win over Ole Miss and Kentucky. That simply isn’t good enough. His 2011 team was hit hard by injuries, losing star wideout Justin Hunter to a torn ACL in Week 3 and quarterback Tyler Bray to a broken thumb for five games. That can explain some of this team’s struggles, but there is no reason that Tennessee should have had so much difficulty running the ball. The Vols ranked 117th in the nation in rushing, averaging a paltry 90.1 yards per game. That is inexcusable.
It’s always dangerous to throw out a number of wins required for a coach to keep his job, but Dooley will probably need to win at least eight games in 2012. Regardless, though, his team needs to look like it has improved — something that can’t be said for each of the last two seasons.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think it’s too early to judge Dooley at Tennessee. Yes, back-to-back losing seasons are a disappointment and Saturday’s loss to Kentucky isn’t sitting well in Knoxville, but the cupboard wasn’t exactly full when he took the job. Had quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter stayed healthy for the full year, it’s likely the Volunteers could have gotten to at least 6-6 or pulled off an upset to get to 7-5. One alarming trend developing for Tennessee is the losses in SEC play over the last two years. Out of the seven defeats in conference games this season, four of those were by more than 10 points. The schedule has been brutal the last two years, with South Carolina improving, along with catching SEC West games against LSU and Arkansas in 2011. If the Volunteers go 6-6 or 5-7 next year, then it’s time to put Dooley on the hot seat. However, Tennessee is recruiting well and there’s a lot of young talent that should help this team get back into a bowl game next year.
Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
In theory, every single coach in America is on the "hot seat." It is a vague term that represents a portion of every fan base that is unhappy with the current performance of its head coach. At times, that portion of the fan base is more passionate and more justified. No matter the verbiage used, Derek Dooley will be facing THE make or break season in Knoxville next fall. He has unquestionably had terrible luck: Losing the team's top three players for the better part of the season, the tumultuous way in which he landed the gig and the lack of talent when he got to campus have all been a part of the 14 losses Tennessee has experienced over the last two seasons. That said, the offensive line was young and talented entering this season and showed very little growth and development — try last in the SEC in rushing and 117th nationally. And there was a clear divide within the locker room between the veterans and the younger players and it cost them a bowl game. The team chemistry issues in particular give pause, as uniting a locker room is one aspect of coaching that can be not only controlled, but maximized by a strong, positive leader. If this team is healthy and develops on offense, Tennessee should be poised for eight wins (and Dooley will have proven he belongs). But if the Vols play like they did against Kentucky ever again, his time on Rocky Top will come to an abrupt end.