What Is Tennessee Football's Place in the Ultra-Competitive SEC Right Now?

Mark HancockContributor IIIDecember 3, 2010

Tennessee Head Football Coach Derek Dooley Roams The Neyland Stadium Sideline in His Inaugural Season on The Hill
Tennessee Head Football Coach Derek Dooley Roams The Neyland Stadium Sideline in His Inaugural Season on The HillGrant Halverson/Getty Images

The upcoming bowl game that the Tennessee Volunteers have earned is a must win for head coach Derek Dooley as he tries to rebuild the UT football program.

This is true for several reasons, including team confidence, momentum and recruiting.

Although Dooley has assembled a decent recruiting class for 2011 so far, it is currently ranked 10th in the Southeastern Conference, ahead of only Kentucky and Vanderbilt. That won't win any championships for the Big Orange Nation on the field for sure.

In fact, unless he closes strong in January and adds some big timers and 5-star athletes, especially at running back, linebacker and in the trenches, the jury will still be out on him as a recruiter.

Remember that the bulk of the star athletes in the 2010 class were early enrollees that Lane Kiffin left behind this past January.

Dooley has made the case that he can recruit 3-star athletes and coach them up into champions. However, that's definitely going against the grain and doing things the hard way.

With the Big Orange having its main competition from Florida and Alabama annually, and now with strong challenges from Georgia and South Carolina in the ultra-competitive SEC East stockpiling 5-star recruits, it's going to be very difficult for UT to climb back to the top on the field unless it gets back to the top nationally in recruiting too.

As of now, Tennessee is honestly the fourth best program in the SEC East, again ahead of only Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the only two division members that they beat on the field this season. They are probably only ninth best or so in the SEC overall too, as the West was better than the East in 2010.

While UT came close to beating LSU in perhaps their best performance of the year, they probably aren't better than any other SEC West team other than Ole Miss, so it was fortunate they had them on their schedule this time around.

A home game with the Rebels, or Black Bears, or whatever they're calling themselves now down in Oxford, will be replaced by an away game against the Arkansas Razorbacks in always tough Fayetteville next season, so improving on UT's 3-5 conference record next year may be a real challenge for the Volunteers.

For now, Dooley has the Vols bowling once again, something that ought to be minimally required for any coach at Tennessee with all the facilities and support the university has, coupled with the fact that it now requires only six wins to be bowl-eligible. Is being a bowl team, however, enough to satisfy the legions of Big Orange fans that thirst for the SEC championship that has eluded them since 1998?

Tennessee is approaching the longest drought in its long and storied history between conference championships. Dooley has been afforded patience in his rebuilding program. However, finishing 7-6, rather than 6-7, is mandatory to keep things rolling in the right direction in Big Orange Country.