A coach lands on the hot seat for his overall body of work. In the case of Derek Dooley though, one game best summarizes why 2012 is a make-or-break campaign for the Tennessee leader.
When Kentucky last defeated UT prior to November 2011, Ronald Reagan had just won reelection. The Nintendo Entertainment System had not yet made its way from Japan to the United States. This was the No. 1 song in America:
The Volunteers’ 10-7 loss to UK on November 26 may not be as embarrassing as the music of Wham!, but it’s a razor thin margin. UT had the longest active streak against any one opponent in all of college football, 26 games. The Wildcats remain on the dubious end of the same distinction, but now it’s a 25-game streak against Florida.
The loss was so much more than a streak ending, though. It prevented the Volunteers from reaching a bowl game for just the third time since 1980. It relegated Tennessee to its own, unoccupied spot at the very bottom of the SEC East. The seven points UT scored mustered that afternoon marked the fifth time on the year the Volunteers failed to crack double digits — and the only time UK held an opponent to single digits since its 14-3 defeat of Western Kentucky in Week 1.
There’s plenty the folks of Knoxvegas would love to forget about 2011, but the historical precedents set then will ensure that season is remembered for a long, long time. The 2012 season will dictate whether it’s remembered as the failure indicative of an overall era, or the necessary growing pain leading to upward expansion.
Now, the new season won’t exactly kick off with a clean slate. Since that chapter-closing loss in Lexington last November, Dooley lost six members of his coaching staff. Most notable are defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, who left for Washington. The departure sent up an immediate red flag. Tennessee had already lost one coach to the Pac-10/12 in the last three years, but Lane Kiffin’s departure was easily justified. His roots were at USC, and it was not difficult to paint him as a job-jumping turncoat.
But Wilcox and Sirmon saying goodbye to the SEC for a program that has gone over a decade without winning more than seven games is a gut-punch to the pride of the fan base. The SEC prides itself on its superiority to the other conferences, the Pac-12 included. Such a move is regarded a downgrade in stature in SEC Country. The only split as disconcerting was the transfer of wideout DeAnthony Arnett to Michigan State, which resulted in a very public flap between he and the UT program.
Winning cures most ills though, and UT should have an improved product come autumn. Chief in the Volunteers’ restoration project is the return of Tyler Bray. Much of the criticism Dooley sustained for his team’s on-field performance could have been avoided had Bray not suffered a broken thumb early in the season.
The immediate depreciation in UT’s offensive outputs with Bray out of the lineup are stark. The Vols went three straight weeks without cracking double digits, breaking the skid only when facing a Middle Tennessee State team that finished near the bottom of the Sun Belt. Only after Bray returned did UT manage 10 or more points against an SEC opponent, not coincidentally the Vols’ 27-21 defeat of Vanderbilt on Nov. 19.
Bray was not terribly effective in that effort. He did pass for two touchdowns, but went 16-33 and was intercepted twice. It was apparent he wasn’t the same, but a lame Bray was still a significant upgrade over Matt Simms. Simms’ stretch as starter looked about as good as Bray’s famous back tattoo, and served to vindicate Desmond Howard. A fully healthy Bray is among the conference’s top quarterbacks though, and the obvious building block for the UT offense.
Bray must carry a ton of weight, though. A rushing offense that was among the nation’s absolute worst is replacing its top producer, Tauren Poole. Perhaps the addition of Jay Graham from South Carolina can bolster the anemic ground attack. Graham is UT’s new running backs coach, and worked with one of the SEC’s, and thus country’s best rushers in Marcus Lattimore. It’ll be a long process to establishing a committee that can match Lattimore’s singular output, however.
Sal Sunseri takes over for Wilcox as the defensive coordinator. This is perhaps the position that most needs to be successful for Dooley to hang around, because Wilcox’s unit did well prior to the offense’s utter collapse. UT held opponents to 22.6 PPG on the campaign, a figure that ranked among the top 40 nationally. Included in its performances 20 points yielded to Georgia, and 23 to Cincinnati.
Sunseri was on staff for arguably the best defense in all of college football last season, overseeing Alabama’s mighty linebacking corps. His new LB unit has a star on it, A.J. Johnson. The freshman burst onto the scene in his debut campaign with 80 tackles, second most on the roster, and a pair of fumble recoveries.
Prentiss Waggner is a name to know in the secondary, the anchor at cornerback. His opposite is one of a few key position battles in spring ball.
Improving its blitzing should be a top priority for Sunseri’s new defense. The Vols had just 16 sacks. But most important to buoying the defense is injecting some form of life into the offense. Leaving the defenders on the field because of one short drive after another grinds them down until they’re completely ineffective. Such was UT’s case, in a poetic representation of the Vols’ current state: wearing down through attrition.