Hopes were high for the 2011 Tennessee Volunteers. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed with a flurry of significant injuries, lackluster performance and, in a few cases, some bad coaching. It's this final reason that leads to an all-important 2012 season for Vols head coach Derek Dooley.
So what's the guy gotta do to get off the hot seat halfway through the season?
I could go down a list of 10 reasons that break down each aspect of the season from players to fan support to recruits, but it all points toward the same thing that Dooley must do by Week 7: win!
And win a lot, in my opinion. Remember, I'm not talking about what has to happen in order for Dooley to continue as is. This is about what he has to do to officially be settled as Tennessee's coach for the future. The requirements below are therefore quite challenging.
Finally Conquer the Georgia Dome
The last time the Vols won in Atlanta's Georgia Dome was the 1998 SEC Championship. It's been far too long, and the streak must end.
Tennessee will face an NC State team that is on the precipice of deciding what kind of program it wants to become. A Volunteer win could remind the Wolfpack that they had six consecutive losing seasons until their recent two-year hot streak.
A Volunteer loss would propel NC State to a strong 2012 season and another bowl trip. There is a lot riding on this game for both teams, but the Vols desperately need a notable victory to kick off the season if Dooley is to cool his seat by Week 7.
Vanquish the Weak
With the introduction of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, the out-of-conference schedule for Tennessee is unlikely to ever feature any major threats in the future. It just doesn't make any sense to play the strong SEC East and Alabama and throw in a difficult Big-12 team.
That sentiment is evident in this year's non-conference schedule, featuring Georgia State and Akron before Week 4.
Georgia State is a brand new football program, having just organized in 2010. Akron is coming off a record of 2-22 over the last two seasons.
Anything other than a beatdown of these two opponents will leave Dooley's seat warm.
Pick Your Battle: Florida or Georgia
As a fan, of course I want Derek Dooley and the Tennessee Volunteers to beat both Florida and Georgia. The two are arch-rivals, and they have historically dominated the SEC East with Tennessee.
But when it comes to the hot seat getting cool by Week 7, one win and one strong performance that results in a loss will do. And really, there is very little differentiation between which win would mean more.
Florida is still figuring out the post-Urban Meyer days of college football, but it has great talent, tons of speed and quality depth. Georgia is coming off an SEC East title but was facing Dooley-like questions with their head coach, Mark Richt, just one year ago.
It's amazing what one strong year can do, isn't it?
"Carry the Fight to the Opponent"...on the Road
Never say never, but the Volunteers are highly unlikely to beat Alabama, even at Neyland. That leaves a trip to Mississippi State as the only opportunity to beat an SEC West team, and the game will come in Week 6.
If the Vols have done as I've laid out above, they'll be sitting at 4-1 heading into the bout. A loss against Mississippi State would leave Tennessee at 4-2 with Alabama coming up, another probable loss. Dooley will be squarely on the hot seat at 4-3, with consecutive losses at Week 7 if that's the case.
That's why the Mississippi State game is so important for Derek Dooley. With only one SEC road victory on his resume, Dooley could use another in Starksville to get him off the hot seat by the midpoint.
The Mission: 5-2 by Week 7
Notice how there are no specifications about Derek Dooley securing a strong 2013 recruiting class, building depth in the secondary or developing the talent on the offensive line.
Those accomplishments are great, but this season, it's all about the winning. It's been two years since the team has had to rebuild, and those who were honest in their evaluations have been able to weather the storm over the last 25 games.
But now the expectation levels of all fans are approximately the same, and when it comes to relieving Dooley of the hot seat title by Week 7, the job requirement states that an opening-day win over NC State, impressive performances over Georgia State and Akron, victory over Florida or Georiga and a road win against Mississippi State is what it'll take to get it done.
Let the record show that I believe that's exactly what will happen. The Vols will be 5-2 at Week 7 (losses at Georgia and Alabama), and Derek Dooley, if you can believe it, will no longer be on the hot seat.