It's the nature of college football that you feel better about Derek Dooley today than you did on January 15. This is August 16, kickoff is 19 days away (!), and hope abounds. It abounds in Tuscaloosa, it abounds in Nashville, and it abounds at all points in between. Though we're probably closer to Vanderbilt than Alabama right now, hope is unaffected - I guarantee you there was a guy in black and gold who heard Robbie Caldwell talking about turkey insemination and therefore surmised that he was going to win at Vanderbilt. Though we may not be hoping for the championships Alabama is dreaming of - not seriously, anyway - we're all starting to get optimistic that good things could happen for our team this year.
On our third coach in three years, we're using a new definition for what "good things" are this year. As such, Dooley becomes the person most closely associated with our ability to achieve those good things this year; fair or no, our shiny new head coach will either take the blame or get the credit for whatever we end up with in December (or if we're being really hopeful, January).
He doesn't have to win anything big this year. And if three years continues to be the probationary period for new head coaches, he doesn't have to get to Atlanta by 2012 either. He just needs to make us believe that it's really possible.
From a talent, depth, and competitiveness standpoint, is 2010 going to be as bad as it gets for us? The answer to that question needs to be yes. Even with a murderous 2011 schedule that may not make a better record reasonable, the Vols can make improvements. The biggest question marks right now - quarterback, offensive line, Justin Wilcox - can become real strengths in one year. What we need to see is progression: if we're hovering around .500 this year, then let's think about seven or eight wins next year, and then let's get back to business as usual by 2012. I think every UT fan would understand that timeline. And if we're good enough to accelerate it...well, that'll be just fine too.
So now coming to the starting line, what do we want to see from Derek Dooley's first team...and will it be enough to make us believe that he's the man for the job?
You feel better about Dooley after his first seven months not just because we're all hopeful in mid-August, but because of what he's done: a strong coaching staff, a stronger close in recruiting than any of us could've imagined, and despite situations involving Bryce Brown and Bar Knoxville that ruffled feathers, Dooley's personality (and its comparison to the previous head coach) makes you want to love him.
But once the real games begin, all that goes away. The sound bites are only good when you're winning, and as Kiffin and all of us found out together after the UCLA game, all the good you build up during the offseason is no match for one dose of disappointment in autumn.
We're braced for disappointment this year, but disappointment is relative. Losing is one thing. Being non-competitive is another.
We're more used to losing than we've ever been: 12-13 the last two years, plus the 5-6 season from 2005 still somewhere in the rear view. What we're still not used to is getting blown out; Kiffin did a good job last year keeping the Vols relevant not just with his mouth and the games we did win, but in close losses against Florida and Alabama. The only real blowout came the week of the Priusgate arrests, and could be chalked up to distraction and attrition.
On the other hand, part of what got Phillip Fulmer wasn't just the losses, but the margins: the three big L's in 2007 were kept at bay by huge wins that same year, but they came back fresh the following year when the Vols were non-competitive against Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina. Six double-digit losses in two years by an average of 24 points did Fulmer in. If Dooley's Vols are getting beat regularly by 24 points, hope will become an endangered species.
The goal is six wins, but being competitive will go a long way towards making folks feel better if we end up with less than that. And those six wins? I don't care how we get there. I'll take UT-Martin, UAB, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and your choice of South Carolina/Ole Miss, and I'll take it with a smile.
Give us a chance to get bowl eligible...if nothing else, we need the extra practice. Keep us competitive more often than not - give us reason to believe that we're not really that far away, which is what the Florida and Alabama games did last year.
Individually, give me a quarterback I can feel good about this time next year. I don't care if it takes all year to figure it out, or if it takes Tyler Bray until November to be ready. Just let me believe that the right guy is already on this roster.
Let Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter, and Matt Milton do enough that we can trust the passing game to them in the future. And let some of these other young players step forward on defense - I believe we have stars in the making with Montori Hughes and Janzen Jackson. Who will join them in building the defense of the future after Chris Walker and Nick Reveiz are gone?
Understand too that if none of these things come to pass this fall - if the Vols go 4-8, get blown out regularly, and don't find an answer at quarterback - that won't guarantee Dooley's failure at this university. Even if Dooley goes 0-12 this year, unless he commits a felony, he'll be back next year. Maybe all of our fears about depth and talent are true, and we're going to spend the year suffering for it.
But if the worst case scenario for 2010 does come to pass, it's going to be a long, long offseason. The standard hope that comes with a new coach in August will turn to anxiety, and if we continue down that path long enough, anxiety will lead to frustration, unresolved frustration will lead to apathy, and we'll be looking for another coach (and athletic director if Bruce Pearl doesn't have a ring).
The one good thing about being so down is that it doesn't take nearly as much as before to impress us. The worst case scenario sounds worse than ever, but the grace afforded a new coach (and especially a third in three years) means that a good season is more easily achieved than ever.
Lane Kiffin went 7-6, but we believed he was the right man for the job and that he would get it done up until the moment he left. I don't know what Derek Dooley will go and it'll only take six wins to call year one a success. But year one is less about the end result and more about the journey along the way...and Dooley will have a chance to make us believe that he's the right man behind the wheel.
So what do you want to see in year one?