Derek Dooley Faces Make-or-Break '8-4 or out the Door' Season at Tennessee

Mark HancockContributor IIIAugust 16, 2012

Tennessee Football Coach Derek Dooley's Season-Ending Loss To Kentucky Last Season Cost the Volunteers a Bowl Bid & Put Him on the Hot Seat for 2012
Tennessee Football Coach Derek Dooley's Season-Ending Loss To Kentucky Last Season Cost the Volunteers a Bowl Bid & Put Him on the Hot Seat for 2012Andy Lyons/Getty Images

CBS has voted Derek Dooley's seat the hottest among Southeastern Conference football coaches for 2012. As the Georgia native enters his third season at the helm in Big Orange Country, he will have the most experienced team in the league but a totally revamped coaching staff.

The natives are decidedly restless in Knoxville. The national spotlight will shine on the UT football program as the Labor Day weekend kicks off the season in the College Football Hall of Fame Kickoff Game in Atlanta against the North Carolina State Wolfpack, a team that many are saying will be among the nation's best this year.

Dooley faces off against his former comrade and fellow Nick Saban protege for the first time in Knoxville against Will Muschamp and the Florida Gators in Knoxville to start the Vols' grueling SEC slate. If he loses that game, he may never beat Florida in his career on The Hill, and Muschamp, a stellar recruiter, may also have his job on the line in that contest.

Tennessee hasn't won a conference championship since 1998. The drought is the longest in school history. With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC and the possibility looming that two more teams may be added to the league soon, winning a title is becoming harder than ever in America's most competitive and most prominent football conference.

It is generally agreed among longtime observers that Athletics Director Dave Hart and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek will be forced to make a change in the football coaching position if Dooley can't win eight games in the 12-game regular season.

The fear is that he might just do that and then get an extension of his contract and continue to produce only 8-4 seasons for the rest of his time on the job, which would just prolong the agony and frustration of Vols fans.

The Volunteers have always traditionally been a perennial power in the SEC in football. Rebuilding them to the level that fans expect, want, and deserve has been a daunting task. Had Lane Kiffin stayed in Big Orange Country instead of bolting for his dream job in Southern California, UT might have been not only challenging for the conference championship but for the national championship, as his Trojans are now.

Dooley's time to either get the job done now or punt it to someone else is at hand. The patience of long-suffering donors has run out. No more game management mistakes can be tolerated.

Adding to Dooley's job is the fact that nearly every coach on his staff left town last year after the humiliating loss to Kentucky. Many felt the head man should have been fired then. It was the Vols' first loss to the Wildcats in over a quarter century.

The very first test for Dooley in 2012, in the Chick-Fil-A Classic, part of a doubleheader weekend that also includes an Auburn-Clemson game in Atlanta, won't be an easy one. A loss in that game to the NC State Wolfpack will mean the wolves will start howling back in Knoxville, too.