Entering his third season as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, it is doubtful that Derek Dooley is feeling comfortable after a 11-14 record in his first two seasons in Knoxville.
Dooley inherited a program in shambles after the firing of Philip Fulmer and departure of Lane Kiffin after one season. So far, Dooley has completed the off-field steps to improve his team’s reputation. Off-field incidents have been reduced and top-25 recruiting classes are flowing in.
Still, Volunteers brass do not want to win the offseason as much as they savor victory come Saturdays in the fall.
Dooley has not been doing enough in that department.
Fortunately for him, this upcoming season will show significant upturn in the direction of the program on the playing field. Take a look at why Dooley will avoid turning his hot seat into an empty one.
This is the SEC after all. The Volunteers finished 28th in total defense last year. In the SEC, that was good for seventh-best in the conference. Five SEC teams finished in the top ten, four of which are on the Volunteers’ schedule this fall.
Sunseri will be rewarded handsomely for his services, and for good reason (via ESPN).
While it is common for defenses to regress in the first year of a scheme switch, the 3-4 defense focuses on varying roles for linebackers. The Vols have high levels of confidence in Curtis Maggitt, Jacques Smith and Herman Lathers, which means the advantage gained from the switch might accelerate the transition.
By hiring the best for his defense, Dooley is ensuring there will be no drop-off after former coordinator Justin Wilcox left for Washington.
Only four teams had less rushing yards in 2011 than the Volunteers, who finished with a paltry 90.1 yards per game.
Only one way to go but up, right?
Dooley and new running backs coach Jay Graham will be mad scientists in switching to what could be a four-man unit. Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal, Devrin Young and true freshman Davante Bourque will be blended into a fun cocktail of backs with their own specialties.
The offensive line returns intact, though a new starter in highly-anticipated sophomore “Tiny” Richardson will take over at left tackle as Dallas Thomas shifts to left guard. Despite a lack of performance, the line does have 99 career starts among them and will improve simply through familiarity and experience.
Do not be mistaken: Tennessee’s strength on offense is through the air.
However, Dooley allowing Graham to be the first full-time running backs coach in his tenure will open up offensive opportunities as the run becomes more of a threat.
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray finished third in the SEC in touchdown passes last season and fifth in passing yards. Did I mention he missed five games in the middle of the season, too?
Now Bray is back and looks to be fully healthy after struggling in the two games after he returned from injury. Bray needs no gimmicks to succeed—his arm runs as smooth as a BMW with his release, accuracy, and strength.
If Bray is a boss in the pocket, then Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter would be his two hit men. Hunter is the typical burner while Rogers will be an ever-dependable target (second in the SEC with 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011) if he can avoid being that type of prima donna wide receiver (via Timesfreepress.com).
Tennessee has their man set under center, and luckily for Dooley, Bray has first-round NFL talent that will translate into big numbers and points on the board for the Volunteers in 2012.
In 2011, the Volunteers faced a six-game slate of Georgia, top-ranked LSU, second-ranked Alabama, South Carolina, Middle Tennessee and Arkansas.
The stretch, during which the Vols could thank the Sun Belt for their only win, ended with a 49-7 demolishing at the hands of the Razorbacks. Bray was out for all but the Georgia game, but the results still killed morale in Knoxville.
This fall, the schedule is a bit lighter.
LSU and Arkansas, against which Tennessee was outscored by a total of 14-87 in 2011, are off the schedule. Their replacements? Mississippi State and Missouri. Both will be challenges for the Volunteers, but they are exponentially more winnable compared to the Razorbacks and a Baton Rouge version of the Tigers.
Outside of a road contest against Georgia—as well as a game in Knoxville against Alabama—the Volunteers should feel confident in their ability to win every time they take the field. They won’t be favored at South Carolina, and possibly against Florida and Missouri, but they will go in with confidence.
The Volunteers face Troy, Missouri at home, Vanderbilt and Kentucky at home in November. If the Volunteers can go 4-0 in the regular season’s final month, they can lose to both South Carolina and Florida while still finishing with eight wins.
Eight will be enough to save Dooley from the axe for another year, and set up for an SEC title run in 2013 if a potential juggernaut in the passing game can stay intact.