The grim specter of death is portrayed throughout literature and cinema as an ominous figure dressed in black. The grim reality of coaching unemployment in the SEC could similarly don black.
Head coach James Franklin’s Vanderbilt team effective ended one coaching tenure earlier this season. After Vanderbilt blasted Kentucky 40-0 on Nov. 3, UK athletic brass opted to part ways with Joker Phillips. Frustration and speculation about the program’s future loomed over Kentucky prior to its encounter with Vanderbilt; the Commodores were merely the final catalyst initiating a coaching change.
Derek Dooley’s tenure as Tennessee head coach started tenuous. Lane Kiffin left the program in January 2010, well after the typical coaching carousel window. Dooley’s success at Louisiana Tech was modest — certainly nothing approaching the levels Sonny Dykes has reached since following him there. And the contention that welcomed Dooley to Knoxville has grown with every loss to another top 25 or SEC opponent.
The Volunteers’ promising season was quickly derailed in a second half meltdown vs. Florida, the first of six consecutive SEC losses that have sent Tennessee into Saturday’s in-state match-up reeling. The Vols must win this week, then close out with a defeat of Kentucky just to make a bowl game. Any goodwill Dooley may have established when his team put forth a gutty effort against South Carolina was squandered when surrendering over 700 yards to Troy the next week, and losing a four overtime heartbreaker to struggling Missouri last Saturday.
Dooley’s fate may already be sealed. No one but Tennessee’s athletic administration knows for sure at this juncture, and that includes Dooley. Per his weekly press conference:
Really all I’m concerned about right now with our team is that they don’t lose their focus on all the things they could be thinking about that won’t help them play well.
A loss to Vanderbilt wouldn’t be the reason Dooley is relieved, but rather the hastening of an inevitability. Tennessee already saw one rivalry it dominated comprised under Dooley, when the program’s win streak over Kentucky was snapped a year ago. Vanderbilt following suit might lower the hammer that lingered this week, but never fell.
Tennessee should beat Vanderbilt in Nashville, like it has every time it’s visited the Music City since 1982. A good Commodore defense will be hard pressed to contain Tyler Bray, operating behind one of the nation’s elite offensive lines.
But then, should has not often translated to will for Tennessee this season. Tennessee should have beaten Missouri, but gave up 51 points to a Tiger offense that scored just 55 points in its four previous SEC games (save its 33-10 defeat of hapless Kentucky). Sal Sunseri’s defense has been the Vols’ albatross. Earlier in the season, a match-up with Vanderbilt would have been a remedy for what ailed Tennessee — not as much anymore.
UT and Vanderbilt are two programs on different courses. Vanderbilt edged Ole Miss for its fourth consecutive win and bowl eligibility for a second straight season. The Commodore offense was rudderless through the season’s first half, failing to crack 20 points against FBS competition. But in the last three outings against FBS teams, Vanderbilt has scored a combined 116 points. Jordan Rodgers is coming off arguably his best game this season, throwing for 279 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner.
The teams’ opposite trajectories are reflected in their coaches. While Dooley is likely in his final weeks donning the orange pants, Franklin has ushered in an era of unprecedented success at longtime SEC punching bag Vanderbilt. The Commodores have much to play for on Saturday, despite having already locked up a bowl berth. A final 8-4 record, with Wake Forest the ‘Dores’ last opponent, would set a new high watermark for program success.
Vanderbilt is also playing for vengeance. Dooley made some famous comments after UT survived a test from the Commodores last season:
“The one thing Tennessee does is beat…Vandy.”