Published April 20, 2012 - 11:38am
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Year three is an important one in Knoxville for Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley.
If the Vols don’t get their act together, he could be on the way out.
Tennessee has a football program with a rich history that includes six national titles, a unit that peaked on a national stage under Phillip Fulmer — whose now reportedly a leading candidate for the Arkansas gig — with nine double-digit win seasons over a 15-year span. Next to Steve Spurrier’s Gators, the Vols were the annual favorites in SEC East.
But that’s old news. It’s been awhile since playing under the lights at Neyland Stadium actually meant something.
Since Fulmer departed in 2010 after a subpar season, the Vols have continued to sputter in the wins and losses department. Tennessee has registered 11 victories in 25 tries under Dooley and finished in the East cellar last season. Dating back to 2002, four years after quarterback Tee Martin and the Vols captured the school’s most recent national title, Tennessee is 9-21 against conference rivals Florida, Alabama and Georgia.
Seven of those victories came between 2003 and 2006, further defining UT’s recent plummet into mediocrity. The last time Tennessee appeared the SEC Championship Game was in 2007.
Last season’s brutal 10-7 loss at Kentucky put the finishing touches on Tennessee’s embarrassing season, just its third 5-7 campaign in two decades. The Orange and White fortress around Dooley began crumbling soon thereafter.
Five assistant coaches quit after the stinker in Lexington and Dooley’s been stuck with constant off-the-field headaches and academic distractions this off-season. Recently, talented wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers has promised the coaching staff that his non-football issues are over. That’s great for the Vols, because they need all the playmakers they can get and a little luck in the injury department.
One bright acquisition in 2012 is Sal Sunseri, Alabama’s former outside linebackers coach who took over as the team’s defensive coordinator. Alongside d-coordinator Kirby Smart, Sunseri helped direct one of the nation’s nastiest defenses, a unit that ranked first in all the vital categories — total defense, scoring defense, third-down efficient, first downs allowed and red zone efficiency.
Sunseri doesn’t have the athletes at his disposal that he enjoyed in Tuscaloosa, but Tennessee returns a number of players capable of making the switch to Sunseri’s playbook, including sophomore standout A.J. Johnson. A key factor will be the Vols’ ability to make adjustments on that side of the ball after intermission. Tennessee outscored the opposition 161-111 before halftime in 2011, but in the quarters that count, were beaten 160-77.
Offensively, Tennessee should be fine with a veteran returning quarterback and running backs Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal. Justin Hunter provides an impact target on the outside after coming back from a season-ending ACL tear.
With a fresh look on defense and a All-SEC caliber signal caller, Dooley will need to make the most of his $1.8 million contract this season — perhaps beating the Gators while they’re down — to fight another day in Knoxville.
Times are tough, but Tennessee’s offense at full-strength could delay Dooley’s departure at least one, maybe two, more seasons.