With Athlon's College Football Top 25 for 2012 released, it's time to take a look at some of the hot topics around the nation. Tennessee is coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, and coach Derek Dooley is on the hot seat. The Volunteers have the talent to return to the postseason, but aren't ready to challenge for the SEC title.
How Many Wins Does Derek Dooley Need to Return at Tennessee in 2013?
Clay Travis (@ClayTravisBGID), OutKickTheCoverage.com
Derek Dooley has to win at least eight regular season games to be back as Tennessee coach in 2012. The reason is simple, he's sucked so far and the 2012 Vols schedule is just about as easy as an SEC schedule can get.
UT could win nine games without beating a ranked opponent.
So eight's the bare minimum and I believe that Dooley's fate will be determined by the middle four games of the Vol season. UT will probably be 3-1 at worst after the first four games.
But then comes the deciding four game stretch. The Vols go on the road at Georgia, at Mississippi State, home against Alabama, and on the road at South Carolina.
UT will probably be an underdog in all four of those games.
If Dooley loses all four of these games, I think he'll end up fired. If he wins just one of the four then he'll have a very good chance of getting to eight wins. If he loses all four, he has to win the other eight on the schedule. I don't see that happening.
So eight wins is a must.
But even if Dooley wins eight, 2013 looks awfully scary.
Road games at Alabama, Florida, and Oregon?
Good luck with that.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
As usual, so much of the perception of the win total depends on the teams the Volunteers beat. If one of those happens to be Alabama, Derek Dooley’s probably in good shape. That’s probably not going to happen, but Tennessee probably needs to defeat Florida in week three just to keep the Derek Dooley-hot-seaters at bay. That said, early losses didn’t seem to harm Mark Richt and Georgia early last season. Probably more important than the wins for Dooley are the losses. If the Vols lose to Kentucky again, he’s going to have a hard time sticking around. If the Vols are getting too excited for an overtime win over Vanderbilt again, that’s probably not a good sign, either. I’d probably set the arbitrary bar at eight wins -- three of those are a given with Georgia State, Akron and Troy. Avoiding a second consecutive loss to Kentucky would bring Tennessee halfway to eight wins, a three-game improvement from last year and a threshold the Vols haven’t hit since 2007. Can Tennessee get those other four wins? It’s going to be close. Not much wiggle room in games against N.C. State in Atlanta, Florida and Missouri in Knoxville and Mississippi State and Vanderbilt on the road. Tennessee can get there, but not if potential NFL quarterback Tyler Bray is hurt again. If he’s healthy and he has Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers catching passes, Tennessee has a great shot to get to eight or nine wins. If that happens, Dooley is back for 2013.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Eight is the magic number for me, with or without a bowl win. An 8-4 regular season would keep his job totally secure this fall. That would mean at least a 4-4 conference record which would undoubtedly feature road wins over bowl teams Mississippi State and Vanderbilt with home wins over bowl team Mizzou and, of course, a revenge victory over Kentucky (I would not want to be Joker Phillips in that season finale). It would also mean a win over NC State, a very good football team that Tennessee fans will likely overlook and undervalue.
Anything more would be a tremendous coup for the program. If his team finishes 7-5 in the regular season, it might take a bowl win for Dooley to feel secure at the Neyland-Thompson Center.
Dooley has stated that "significant improvement" is what he has to accomplish in order to keep his job in Knoxville. Keeping his team healthy, eliminating any dissension within the locker room and playing more competitive football against upper-tier competition would all constitute "significant improvement" — whether that translates into wins or not. The bottom line is fans should have a clear picture of who and what Dooley is as a head coach by the end of the year. It will be blatantly obvious if the Vols are a more competitive football team in 2012. One key upsets — e.g., Florida — would go a long way to entrenching the current regime. But if this team cannot run the football (again), continues to fail at making halftime adjustments and loses a game it shouldn't, Dooley's tenure as the head coach of the Tennessee Vols will be short lived.
It's not all doom and gloom, however, the program is in dramatically better shape today than it was two years ago when Dooley was hired.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
It’s not easy determining how many wins Derek Dooley needs to return for 2013, but I think seven seems to be the magic number. The key word surrounding the Volunteers in 2012 will be progress. Close the gap on Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama and Dooley is probably safe for another season. Fail to show much progress against some of the SEC's top teams and a coaching change could be in order on Rocky Top.
There’s no question there’s a lot of unrest in Knoxville and rightfully so after losing 10-7 to Kentucky in last year’s regular season finale. The Volunteers were hit hard by the injury bug last season, as Tyler Bray suffered a thumb injury and missed five games. Standout receiver Justin Hunter tore his ACL against Florida and did not play in the final nine contests of 2011. With Bray and Hunter back in the mix, Tennessee could have one of the SEC’s top offenses in 2012. However, coordinator Jim Chaney has to find a way to jumpstart a lifeless rushing attack, while the offensive line also has to perform better. The defense returns seven starters, but will miss tackle Malik Jackson and is under the guidance of new coordinator Sal Sunseri.
The opener in Atlanta against NC State could set the tone for the year. If the Volunteers can defeat the Wolfpack, this team can build some momentum for a key early stretch, which features matchups against Florida and Georgia. If Tennessee stumbles, the questions about Dooley’s job will only get louder. Outside of the matchup against NC State, the non-conference slate is manageable, as Georgia State, Troy and Akron visit Knoxville. Catching Mississippi State from the West Division is favorable for the Volunteers, while new conference foe Missouri visits Knoxville in mid-November.
With a favorable schedule and Bray and Hunter back in the mix, anything less than seven wins would be a disappointment for Tennessee fans. There are high expectations in Knoxville, and this is a huge year for Dooley to show the program is back on track. He didn’t inherit a great situation, but it’s time for Dooley and the Volunteers to make some progress and become a factor in the SEC East race once again.
I think Dooley needs to find a way to get to at least seven or eight wins, and certainly to a bowl game, if he wants to return as Tennessee's head coach in 2013. Very little has gone right for Dooley in his first two seasons, but that doesn't change the expectations of Big Orange Nation. To make matters worse, Dave Hart, Tennessee's current athletics director, isn't the guy who hired Dooley in the first place. So besides winning over the fan base this season, Dooley probably needs to convince his boss that he's the right man for the job as well.
Unfortunately for Dooley and his Volunteers, seven or eight wins is anything but a guarantee looking at this season's schedule. For one, the season opener against NC State in the Georgia Dome won't be a cakewalk. Tennessee should win its other three non-conference games, at home against Georgia State, Akron and Troy, but besides its SEC East slate, the Vols also have conference games against defending national champion Alabama and Mississippi State.
Speaking of the SEC East, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida figure to be tough opponents and then there's newcomer Missouri, whose offense will be a difficult test for Tennessee's defense to try and slow down. And at this point, even UT's match ups against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, which were pretty much foregone conclusions until last season, can't be taken for granted.
So assuming Tennessee wins three out of its four non-conference games, the Vols would still need to do no worse than .500 in SEC play to get to that magic number of seven or eight wins. Again, considering who's on UT's conference schedule in 2012, .500 in league play would definitely be an improvement over last season's 1-7 mark. If anything, it certainly wouldn't hurt Dooley's chances of getting another year in Knoxville.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I do not think there is an automatic number like many media members or fans try to portray, but obviously Dooley’s Vols must show significant progress in his third season at the helm. Eight wins against a challenging Tennessee schedule would seem to ensure a 2013 return for the likeable head coach, and a seven-win campaign would cause heavy debate on Rocky Top. If the anemic running game (116th in the nation at 90 yards per game) improves and Sal Sunseri’s defense shows promise in his first season as coordinator, then the Big Orange fan base might have to deal with some close and competitive losses to SEC heavyweights for another year. However, there can be no more inexplicable defeats like last year’s Kentucky head-scratcher.
Dooley was left a bare-bones program from the (lack of recruiting) end of the Phil Fulmer era and one season of Lane Kiffin, who signed way too many questionable-character kids trying for a quick fix. Tennessee’s recruiting has been solid under Dooley, but that just means you’re treading water when competing in America’s toughest conference. The offense has a ton of potential this season but cannot afford any key injuries like the ones last year to quarterback Tyler Bray and top receiver Justin Hunter. The defense has some talent, and it will be interesting to see how the players develop in Sunseri’s hybrid look.
When new athletic director Dave Hart took over in Knoxville, many speculated that Dooley’s seat got much warmer. However, the veteran AD knows how down the program was when Dooley was hired. If the ’12 Vols show progress and compete like a top-tier SEC team, I believe there will be no change. But a 7-5 regular season with an unexpected loss may force Hart’s hand as Tennessee football tries to return to national relevance.
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