Derek Dooley took over the Tennessee Volunteers football team with barely a couple of weeks left to recruit in early 2010. He managed to salvage a good class, some of whom were already early enrollees that Lane Kiffin had brought to Big Orange Country prior to his departure to Southern Cal.
After starting the season 2-6 with double-digit losses to Oregon, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, barely beating UAB in two overtimes and nearly knocking off LSU in Baton Rouge had the coaching staff counted their substitutes on the last play of the game, Dooley's Vols strung together four straight wins to finish strong, including a 52-point performance against Ole Miss and winding up with the 26th straight win over their only rival to the north, the Kentucky Wildcats, keeping major college football's longest winning streak intact.
By getting to 6-6, Dooley has a chance to equal Kiffin's record last year, as Tennessee will be making its 49th all-time bowl appearance, which ranks third nationally. One likely scenario has UT facing North Carolina, a team Athletics Director Mike Hamilton dropped from next season's schedule, as the Vols' opponent in the Music City Bowl in Nashville on December 30.
Many had thought Dooley might be in over his head with the Tennessee program. The ranks were thin and his resume was even thinner. Outside of being Vince Dooley's son and Nick Saban's protege, there was nothing to suggest in his Louisiana Tech record that he could survive in the rough and tumble Southeastern Conference, the nation's best college football league.
Relying on a talented group of senior leaders, including Nick Reveiz, Denarius Moore, Gerald Jones, Chris Walker, Luke Stocker and LaMarcus Thompson, Dooley turned in an admirable coaching job down the stretch to become bowl eligible. The extra practices will be beneficial to his young team.
Tennessee has a long and storied football tradition. Since General Robert Neyland established the program in the 1920's, the stadium that bears his name is one of the largest and winningest in the nation. The Vols have won six national championships and 13 SEC championships, and are among the nation's leaders in NFL draft picks.
Thus, Dooley has big shoes to fill. Time will tell if his recruiting can yield the championships that UT fans have come to expect and deserve, with all of the facilities and advantages his program has to offer high school prospects.
A bowl win is a must as Dooley seeks to establish himself on The Hill. Finishing with a 6-7 slate would leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth for his inaugural season and stymie the momentum that the program has gained in the past month.
In fact, steady progress is all most Big Orange faithful expect. With the daunting prospect of having to play at Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas all on the road in 2011, no one expects Dooley to go undefeated in his second season.
However, marked improvement may be possible with a watered-down home schedule that includes the likes of Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo and MTSU.
With a good recruiting year to shore up depth, it is entirely possible that Dooley could achieve a 9-3 record or better in his second season, propelling the Volunteers back to prominence nationally. That would be enough to put them back in a January bowl for the 14th time, the next step to making it back to BCS consideration for the fifth time in the program's history.