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Derek Dooley's Future As the Tennessee Head Coach


-by Braden Gall (follow at @BradenGall)

Tennessee Volunteers fans are going to win in 2012 – no matter where they fall on the Derek Dooley love-hate spectrum.

So why is Big Orange nation working itself into a ravenous frenzy on Jan. 3?

Relax, Dooley is going to be the head coach of the Tennessee football team in 2012, so the fans need to get used to it. But make no mistake, he will have to win football games, at least seven (if not eight), to see another New Year’s in Knoxville. Either way, fans screaming for Dooley’s head to roll down Kingston Pike should get what they want in 2012.

If Tennessee fails to reach a bowl game for the second consecutive year, Dooley will be fired and those blood-thirsty fans should be happy. If Tennessee develops its young talent, wins more than it loses and plays in the postseason, well, isn’t that what all Vols’ fans should want? Isn’t that simply the next step in one of the most embattled and unique coaching tenures in the history of SEC football?

Dooley has certainly had his chances to make a statement in his young head-coaching career — the defensive gaffe in the closing seconds in Baton Rouge comes to mind. Yet, the task Dooley faced when he stepped into the spotlight in 2010 might have been the most tumultuous coaching situation in the SEC since the advent of divisional play 20 years ago.

After a lackluster defeat at the hands of rival Kentucky that crushed the Vols' bowl hopes, it doesn’t appear things are getting any easier for the tormented head coach. Dooley had to address the media Tuesday morning for the first time in over a month after defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach, and top recruiter, Peter Sirmon accepted similar positions under Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington. Do not get worked up over whether Tennessee is a "better job" than Washington. The Pacific Northwest will always be considered an upgrade to two coaches who are from the area. So Sirmon and Wilcox leaving are not signs of a sinking ship.

That said, who Dooley tabs as his new defensive coordinator could end up being one of the most important decisions of his career — both in terms of developing and acquiring talent.

"The program is significantly better than it was 22 months ago, when we all got here," Dooley said Tuesday. While it’s hard to convince many Vols fans to be optimistic, Dooley isn’t too far off. He continued, “We’re on our way. The worst is behind us.”

He also announced the release of freshman receiver DeAnthony Arnett. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., had been asking for the release in order to move closer to his father, who is sick. Arnett caught 24 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns in 2011.

Here are some facts to consider:

  • Tennessee has lost 14 games over a two-year period of time for the first time in school history.
  • Four of those 14 losses came at the hands of the two teams playing in the BCS national title game.
  • It’s the most pre-Kiffin losses in a two-year span since 1976-77, when Tennessee lost 12 games between the Bill Battle and Johnny Majors coaching change.
  • Johnny Majors lost 23 games in his first four seasons.
  • In 2011, Tennessee ranked 116th in the nation in rushing and 12th in the SEC at 90.1 ypg.
  • Tennessee ranked 106th in the nation in scoring at 20.3 ppg.
  • The Vols scored a total of six third-quarter points in SEC play. They were outscored 84-6 in the third frame of SEC play and were outscored 132-35 in the second half of SEC action. In conference, Tennessee was shutout four times in the second half.
  • Lane Kiffin signed 22 players in the 2009 class. Eleven lettered, nine played in a game and three played in all 12 games this fall. Those 22 signees played an average of 3.1 games this season.
  • According to Athlon Sports 2009 preseason football magazine recruiting rankings, not one of the top seven-rated players in the ‘09 class played a single game in 2011 (In order: Bryce Brown, David Oku, Janzen Jackson, NuKeese Richardson, Darren Myles, Jared Askew and James Green). All seven nationally rated recruits in that class failed to play in a game in 2011.
  • Justin Hunter, Tyler Bray and Janzen Jackson, arguably the best three players on the roster in the spring, combined to play 10 total games this season.
  • The 2012 Vols could potentially return 19 of 22 starters.
  • Tennessee finished No. 2 in the SEC in passing offense — with Matt Simms and Justin Worley attempting a combined 149 passes.
  • According to official stats page, 82 of 114 eligible Vols were underclassmen and only 13 were seniors.
  • Derek Dooley has to produce wins in 2012 or he will not be retained as the Tennessee head coach.

Most Tennessee fans would have to agree, it certainly looks like “the worst” has already taken place.

The bottom line is “Just win, baby.” The 14 losses mean nothing. The bare Philip Fulmer cupboard means nothing. The horrific third quarter stats mean nothing. What matters is wins and losses in 2012 — and that there are no more excuses for Dooley. Once he fills the voids on his defensive staff, and assuming he can keep a top 20 recruiting class intact, he will have all the pieces in place to win in 2012.

The schedule appears to have given Dooley a chance to keep his swan song at bay as well. There are no Oregons on the slate in the non-conference — or LSU on the SEC line-up. The toughest non-conference test will be the Kickoff Classic battle with a five-loss NC State team in Atlanta. Otherwise, Georgia State, Akron and Troy should all be wins. Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Kentucky each visit Knoxville while the Vols have to travel to Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. At first look, it’s the sixth most difficult SEC schedule next season and appears relatively manageable.

The biggest impact Dooley can have on his own legacy as Tennessee’s head coach is his developing leadership. It starts with making intelligent, savvy hires in the face of the most recent defections of Wilcox and Sirmon (like new running back coach and rising star recruiter Jay Graham). Uniting a locker room divide should also be atop the list. Building cohesion in the face of adversity is one of the few tangible impacts a coach can have on a locker room. Finally, in-game adjustments are signatures of a quality field general who has quality platoon leaders.

Dooley needs to create a distinct identity that Vols’ players and coaches can rally around and be proud to represent. This will build a foundation for success on the field, in the locker room and on the recruiting trail. It’s also where a portion of the responsibility falls to the players, like Tyler Bray. The maturation process has to continue for the players just like it has to for Dooley.

Tennessee Volunteers fans have every right be disturbed with what has taken place in Knoxville over the last two seasons. However, burning down the twittersphere and talk show phone lines serves no purpose other than elevating your own blood pressure. Because right now, Big Orange Nation is actually in worse shape that the football program itself.

The talent and schedule are set-up for Dooley to win in 2012. If he wins, be happy and relish the fact that Tennessee is a winning football program once again. If he does not, you won’t have to see those orange pants on the sideline ever again.

In which case, Dooley would have been very right about one thing at least: the new head coach will be stepping into a program that is in dramatically better shape than it was 22 months ago.