Derek Dooley’s Magic Number
By Matt Smith
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It’s year three for Derek Dooley, and time is ticking. Eight regular season wins and nothing less is what Dooley must accomplish in order to retain his job.
While Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley isn’t the only SEC coach on the proverbial hot seat heading into the 2012 season, he’s by far the most scrutinized. John L. Smith is likely just a one-year stopgap at Arkansas, and Kentucky is, well, just Kentucky.
Dooley’s 11-14 record has been ingrained in the heads of Volunteer fans all offseason. However, that mark is only one game worse than the Vols’ record in the two years prior to Dooley’s arrival – one of those teams coached by a College Football Hall of Famer, the other coached by a man whose current team is considered the biggest threat to ending the SEC’s six-year reign atop college football.
Nevertheless, consecutive losing seasons, which included the team’s first loss to Kentucky in 27 years last November, don’t sit well in Knoxville. Fans are unhappy, and are putting (or keeping) their money where their mouths are. Single-game tickets went on sale to the general public earlier this week for home games against rivals Florida and Alabama, something unheard of in the program’s glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s.
By no means should all of the blame for the poor record be placed on Dooley. The current senior class, signed by Lane Kiffin, has whittled down to nine of the original twenty-two. Depth and experience have been lacking, the team hasn’t caught many breaks, including two of the strangest finishes you’ll ever see in 2010 against LSU and North Carolina, and injuries have taken their toll.
“We lost Herman Lathers before the season, then we lost Justin [Hunter] the third game of the season” Dooley said. “Then we lost Tyler [Bray] the fifth game of the season. I think it had a bad impact on us. Our spirit was broken.”
Alas, it’s year three for Dooley, and time is ticking. The question now becomes, what will it take for the son of a coaching legend to save his job? In reality, it’s cut and dry. Eight regular season wins and nothing less is what Dooley must accomplish.
An eight-win benchmark allows for likely losses to Alabama, at Georgia and at South Carolina. However, there can only be one slip-up in four games that seem fairly even on paper: vs. N.C. State, Florida, at Mississippi State and at Vanderbilt. 2-2 in those games won’t cut it unless the Vols can upset one of the three heavyweights. 3-1 is a must.
A three-game improvement may seem like it’s asking a lot with just a 12-game schedule, but the Volunteers have plenty working in their favor this year. 19 starters return, as does inside linebacker and team leader Lathers, back from an ankle injury. Bray, despite some struggles with his maturity, is the most physically gifted passer in the SEC. The schedule includes three easy victories (as it did last year), but the conference schedule sees unranked Missouri and Mississippi State replace top-10 teams Arkansas and LSU.
Seven new assistant coaches are never a plus, despite Dooley constantly pointing to the seamlessness of the transition due to him being on the same page with his coordinators, retained offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, and fellow Nick Saban disciple Sal Sunseri on defense.
“There will be a few things where we show some growing pains,” Dooley explained. “What’s made it seamless is guys who believe in what I believe.”
Sunseri will implement much more aggressive schemes with his multiple fronts than predecessor Justin Wilcox ran during his time on Rocky Top. Chaney will have as many weapons to work with as any team outside of Los Angeles, with junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson joining juniors Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers to make up one of the finest receiving corps in the country.
With the Vols now much more talented and experienced than they were when he arrived, Dooley doesn’t need a magic eight-ball to succeed. He does, however, need eight wins, regardless of how ugly they may be. Should Tennessee stumble in its season opener on Aug. 31 against N.C. State in Atlanta, Dooley will likely have no margin for error the rest of the season.
“You want to play in these kind of games,” Dooley said of the clash with the Wolfpack. “It’s going to be a good early measure for our football team to see how much improvement we made in the last seven months. That’s why you come to Tennessee, to play in those kind of games.”
If his Volunteers aren’t greatly improved from when we last saw them in Lexington nine months ago, there may not many more of “those kind of games” for Dooley.