With 4:46 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley had a critical decision to make. Trailing 33-23, Tennessee either needed to kick it deep and pray everything possible would go right in those final few minutes, or roll the dice and attempt an onside kick.
In a fateful decision that will perhaps cement his legacy as an ultra-conservative, non-championship contending coach, Dooley kicked it deep.
In Dooley's defense, the Volunteers did stop Florida while only using two timeouts. The problem was, though, Tennessee needed a score and then still had to recover an onside kick and score again! And if Florida got one first down, the game was essentially over.
Tennessee got the ball back, made some first downs, then the game ended on Tyler Bray's second interception with 1:56 left in the game.
Most coaches get three, sometimes four years to establish "their" program. So Dooley has this year and next for sure, and in a Tennessee program craving stability, he might be granted a fourth year with any type of positive progress.
This article is not criticizing the effort or the progress of the program, but the coaching decisions. Fulmer did win a national championship, but his conservative ways hindered the potential for success.
Taking a survey of successful college coaches today, the conservative style is not exactly racking up national title after national title.
While Jim Tressel did win the 2002 BCS championship game with his signature conservative style, that Buckeyes team was loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.
Last year's two participants in the national championship game, Auburn and Oregon, were the epitome of creativity all season long. Michigan State beat Notre Dame last season on an epic fake field-goal attempt in overtime.
Michigan could have played it safe two Saturday's ago against Notre Dame and kicked the field goal to force overtime. Instead, Brady Hoke allowed Denard Robinson to take a shot and Michigan won in a stunning comeback.
Those are the types of risks it takes to achieve success in college football. In comparison, Dooley and his Tennessee staff made so many mind-boggling decisions yesterday, I really do question his future as the head coach at Tennessee.
Among those decisions I would consider sketchy at best:
- Not putting in a back-up center, at least for a series, after Tyler Bray scooped up his 15th bad snap
- Continuing to run the ball when, for the second time this season, the run game was completely ineffective
- Trailing by 10 late in the fourth, not kicking an onside
For all the negativity, Dooley did attempt a two-point conversion trailing 30-13 that ESPN called in its recap of the game "questionable." However, the logic was simple: Make the score 30-15 and Tennessee needed two touchdowns and one two-point conversion. Those two-point conversions would have been needed for two of the three touchdowns anyway, so that was a good call.
The problem, though, is the big picture. Tennessee continued to attempt and rush the ball despite being in the negative for most of the second half. Florida's secondary was obviously suspect, and even with the loss of Justin Hunter, Tennessee should have thrown every down. Incomplete passes would have served like timeouts.
Clock management was somewhat of an issue, but that is to be expected with a young team and a sophomore quarterback facing his first real SEC power.
And make no mistake, this is not a personal assault of Dooley or the Tennessee program. I am an avowed fan of the Volunteers and have supported them for the past 12 years. But if Dooley is going to coach like Fulmer, we might as well bring Fulmer back.
Tennessee is not particularly blessed right now with an abundance of veteran talent. It is a young team and needs time to grow and mature, like any rebuilding program.
But the continued conservative play-calling and lack of risk-taking by the coaches will not give Tennessee a shot to win against any of the "big boys" in the SEC.
Even current Duke head coach and former Tennessee assistant David Cutcliffe rolled the dice and ordered a first-half onside kick against Stanford. It worked, but Duke still got drilled by Andrew Luck and the Cardinal.
The point is simple, though: Less-talented teams need creativity and the willingness to take risks to win big games. Dooley has a great emerging QB in Tyler Bray and he needs to throw the ball 50 times a game.
If the running game can be established at some point, then run the ball. Until then, if teams load the box on obvious running situations, the Vols need to throw the ball. They need to kick the occasional onside.
Risky and dangerous coaching leads to infectious support and enthusiasm for a program. Anyone remember the Texas Tech vs. Texas instant classic when Michael Crabtree scored in the final seconds to give Mike Leach a stunning win in Lubbock? Been to an Oregon home football game in the past two seasons while they are running a play every three seconds and scoring in bunches?
The support and enthusiasm for programs like that are a byproduct of the coaching. Auburn won a national title in part due to the play calling of Gus Malzahn, who would never be confused with a conservative style.
Derek Dooley needs to really sit down and think about his future as Tennessee's head coach. It is a proud program with plenty of support. But the fans expect a winner.
At the end of the day I'm sitting on my couch writing this article and Dooley is making over a million dollars this season, but that doesn't matter. To be a success at Tennessee, Dooley really needs to spice things up. If not, Tennessee will be looking at another trip to the Music City Bowl.