Tennessee Volunteers' head coach Derek Dooley has just wrapped up his third spring with the program, but the work isn't even close to being done. Besides meeting with his new coaches, beginning plans for the 2012 schedule and continuing to recruit new players, the Vols have some huge post-spring dates in the future.
In a year where the general consensus demands eight or nine wins, Tennessee is looking at its most important post-spring period in several years. If the Vols don't convert all of their hard work into wins this fall, you better believe new athletic director Dave Hart will be reviewing resumes for yet another coaching change.
Let's hope for the sake of the 2012 season and the future of the program that Dooley and his players can get it turned around. Here are five key dates that will help with that.
Sure, the Tennessee Volunteers don't have a ton of talent entering the 2012 NFL Draft, but you better believe it's a big day for those players and the coaches.
Guys like Malik Jackson, Austin Johnson and Tauren Poole are the reason the Big Orange even have a fighting chance this fall. These men were there when the program was at its worst, and their leadership helped keep the ship from sinking.
Also draft eligible is long snapper Nick Guess (maybe a practice squad player in the preseason), Ben Martin and Matt Simms.
In appreciation for the grit they showed during some of Tennessee's toughest years, be sure to look for their names on the draft boards this weekend—recruits will.
As if the facilities at Tennessee weren't nice enough, the program will be completing a brand new Football Training Center sometime this summer.
(The odds-on favorite for the naming rights is Haslam.)
The 145,000-square foot building includes an amphitheater-style team room, coaches offices, position meeting rooms, a dining hall, players' lounge, a 7,000-square foot locker room, a 22,000-square foot, multi-level weight room as well as a new training room and hydrotherapy area.
In other words, it's going to be a palace.
This kind of investment is clearly to benefit the future of the program, something all Volunteer fans can support.
You'll find more recent success and maybe a little better coaching at a few other schools, but no one is going to have better accommodations for its football team than the University of Tennessee.
There will be summer workouts and practice sessions throughout May, June and July, but when August rolls around, you'll finally get to see the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers shaping up.
JUCO transfers like Darrington Sentimore and Daniel McCullers will join the defensive line. Incoming freshmen LaDarrell McNeil and Deion Bonner will join a talented secondary, while athlete/running back Davante Bourque and a new wave of wide receivers will slide into the offense.
You could see some changes in the depth chart and perhaps even a starting roster switch-up.
It's vital that the new guys fit in and push the starters everyday in practice leading up to the first game of the year.
For some reason, the Volunteers were bestowed the honor of playing in one of only two relevant games on college football's opening night. (The other one is Boise State vs. Michigan State, which is admittedly a better game.)
The Friday night kickoff on the last day of August will be an excellent opportunity for Tennessee to show that it has come of age. The team's once young and untested offense is now full of juniors who have played significant minutes.
The defense is a bit of an unknown but could breakout in a big way on national television.
It will be the first time the Volunteers play in Atlanta's Georgia Dome since the Chick-Fil-A Bowl loss to Virginia Tech in 2009. Before that, their last trip to the Dome was the 2007 SEC Championship.
It's amazing what can happen in five years, isn't it?
Tennessee needs to send a message—not to ESPN, other college teams or even the fans. It needs to send a message to its own locker room.
This is the date that should be marked on the calendars of all coaches, players and fans of the Tennessee Volunteers.
The performance of the Big Orange in this game will tell us if the team is ready to win eight or nine games this year, or if it's going to be a third consecutive disappointing season.
Assuming the Vols get passed a decent NC State team and a cupcake in Georgia State for their first two games, they'll be looking for their first 3-0 start since 2004, also the last time Tennessee beat Florida.
The Third Saturday in September sets the tone for the rest of the season. With Florida as weak as they've been in years (translation: They're only pretty good instead of freaking awesome), the Vols must take advantage.
You simply can't lose to Florida every year and expect to compete in the SEC East.