Let's pretend Lane Kiffin never happened. See, you're feeling better about this post already.
Let's pretend Phillip Fulmer kept his job following the 2008 season, turned in the exact same 7-6 record Kiffin had in 2009, and was then replaced by Derek Dooley. It's easy, and sometimes fun, to blame Kiffin for the program being in such bad shape, but for the sake of this argument let's pretend he never put on an orange and white visor. Because if we look past the cheap answer, we might find the real one.
I believe, very strongly, that Tennessee isn't struggling simply because Lane Kiffin coached for one season and then left in the middle of the night. Tennessee isn't struggling because Derek Dooley can't coach. Tennessee doesn't even necessarily have the record they have because of all the injuries this season; some of the margins might have been closer, but the end result would likely be only one game better with Tyler Bray instead of Matt Simms and Justin Worley.
Tennessee is struggling because the teams that are beating them have better players. Rocket science, I know.
Last week we took a look at the second half collapses of Dooley's Vols. That list now includes #13 South Carolina last week, who shut Tennessee out and dominated both sides of the ball in the second half. But the teams on that list - eleven of Dooley's twelve losses here - are still noteworthy. Almost all of them are ranked in the Top 20, and the ones that aren't still had plenty of talent.
But it's not just that Tennessee has played a brutal schedule under Dooley's watch. It's who the Vols have lined up on their own sideline.
The primary reason Tennessee has fallen is the program's recruiting classes in 2007, 2008, and 2009. As we'll see after the jump, those three years weren't kind of bad...they were absolute disasters. In a row. And Derek Dooley - who wasn't around for any of them - is simply left to pick up the pieces.
Here's a complete look at the Vols' recruiting classes in those three seasons - player rankings are from Rivals.com, and players are listed in order of their rating system.
2007 - Phillip Fulmer - National Rank #3
- Five Stars: Chris Donald, Kenny O'Neal, Brent Vinson, Eric Berry, Ben Martin
- Four Stars: Lennon Creer, Donald Langley, Gerald Jones, Darris Sawtelle, Ahmad Paige, Nevin McKenzie, Rolando Melancon, Chris Walker, B.J. Coleman, Rae Sykes, DeAngelo Willingham
- Three Stars: Deshaun Barnes, Anthony Anderson, C.J. Fleming, Savion Frazier, Denarius Moore, Kevin Cooper, Daryl Vereen, William Brimfield, Dennis Rogan, Rufus Williams, Art Evans, Cody Pope, Josh Hawkins, Todd Campbell, Tyler Maples
- Two Stars: Cory Hall
Let's start with Eric Berry. That guy is the best individual player we've had in Knoxville since Peyton Manning, and we enjoyed every second he was on the field. He's also the most loved former Vol since Manning. Only great things to say about him on and off the field; he won the Thorpe Award and has a tremendous future in the NFL. You knew all of that already.
After Eric Berry?
The Vols signed a total of sixteen four and five star players. Of those sixteen, only THREE had meaningful careers in Knoxville, four if you include the injury-plagued Ben Martin. Gerald Jones did some solid work for the Vols. Chris Walker had some solid moments at end. Eric Berry was Eric Berry.
Every other four/five star player was a bust. That's 75% of the top tier of this class.
Even among the three stars, you've got the pleasant surprise of Denarius Moore (who would've been even better with some stability on offense during his time), and then you've got a couple of serviceable role players and backups: Savion Frazier, Kevin Cooper, Daryl Vereen, Dennis Rogan, Art Evans. Nevin McKenzie and DeAngelo Willingham played in the secondary as juco transfers.
On the whole? A class of 32 signees, half of which were elite, produced 19 busts, 2 good players, and 1 Eric Berry.
You can be mad at Fulmer for this one if you want to, but remember: this class was universally praised when it was signed. Everyone was wrong about this one.
2008 - Phillip Fulmer - National Rank #35
- Five Stars: None
- Four Stars: Gerald Williams, E.J. Abrams-Ward, Aaron Douglas, Marlon Walls
- Three Stars: Casey Kelly, Preston Bailey, Rod Wilks, Tauren Poole, Prentiss Waggner, Steven Fowlkes, Willie Bohannon, Dallas Thomas, Austin Johnson, Ben Bartholomew, Herman Lathers
- Two Stars: Stephaun Raines, Carson Anderson, Montori Hughes
You want to blame Fulmer for something, here's where I'd go.
Some of this was the delay in hiring an offensive coordinator (and the fact that that offensive coordinator was Dave Clawson continues to be the move I place the most blame on). But we thought this class would be a train wreck the day it was signed, and much of that has come true.
At the top, the Vols got minimal results from Gerald Williams, while Marlon Walls is still a work in progress. The late Aaron Douglas was a freshman All-American here, but then transferred. Abrams-Ward? Nope.
And look how many of the three stars we're relying on as our best players right now. Those kids - especially Tauren Poole, Prentiss Waggner, Dallas Thomas, and Austin Johnson - are out there fighting for us and making some plays. Herman Lathers can be that guy again when he returns from injury. But when all of the long-term productivity of your class is half of the three stars it signs? That's a very bad sign.
Of the 18 total signees in this class, only six have made long-term positive contributions to the program. All six are three stars.
2009 - Lane Kiffin - National Ranking #10
- Five Stars: Janzen Jackson, Bryce Brown
- Four Stars: Jerod Askew, Marlon Walls, Nu'Keese Richardson, Eric Gordon, Darren Myles, David Oku, James Green, Marsalis Teague, JerQuari Schofield
- Three Stars: Robert Nelson, Arthur Jeffery, Naz Oliver, Greg King, Mike Edwards, Zach Rogers, Daniel Hood, Rae Sykes, Kevin Revis, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, Toney Williams
It's the infamous Kiffin class, and by now we all know that eleven of these twenty-two kids are no longer with the program, including seven of the eight highest rated players by Rivals.
Tennessee got two good years from Janzen Jackson. Bryce Brown was a solid backup as a freshman. Other than that, even the players who have stayed have struggled to produce. I think Marsalis Teague has earned more "bless his heart"s than any Vol this season. Schofield, King, and Mitchell-Thornton all used to see the field much more often than they do now. Who on this list has given or will give Tennessee any kind of solid long-term production? Who on this list could we build a program around?
Here's the bottom line: the Vols signed 31 four/five star players from 2007-2009. Only 3 - Eric Berry, Gerald Jones, and Chris Walker - became long-term starters.
Janzen Jackson was before getting booted. Marlon Walls might become one before he's finished. There is a small group of contributors. But there is an overwhelming group of busts.
Essentially, Tennessee - a once-elite program in the most difficult conference in college football - completely struck out in recruiting three years in a row.
Read that sentence a couple more times, and take a moment to let it sink in.
Now add in the coaching changes. Now add in the injuries this season.
Honest question: how have we not been worse under Dooley?
Look, I know it sucks right now. I know we're not what we should be. But none of that - NONE of it - is Derek Dooley's fault.
It takes time to come back from a recruiting failure of this magnitude, especially when you're playing ranked SEC teams every week. Dooley's first two teams were almost totally devoid of senior leadership (Luke Stocker
was a redshirt senior from the 2006 class, Nick Reveiz
was a walk-on). How are you supposed to rebuild without that?
We'll still be paying for this three year failure next year. You think we've got no senior leadership right now, wait til 2012.
As a result, it would make sense that it would take AT LEAST three years to even BEGIN to come back from something like this.
The only reason we could even begin to allow ourselves to believe that it might happen sooner?
Derek Dooley went out and signed Tyler Bray (and Kiffin does deserve some credit here), Da'Rick Rogers
, and Justin Hunter - in less than three weeks - in 2010. He also signed a bunch of guys who are still young - Rajion Neal
, Jawuan James, James Stone
, Jacques Smith
, Corey Miller
, Michael Palardy
- who could still have plenty of upside. Then he signed jucos and transfers like Mychal Rivera and Malik Jackson to plug in right away.
That doesn't even include the guys we haven't seen yet, but are excited about: Antonio Richardson
, Byron Moore (playing more every week), Cameron Clear
, and the rest of the guys we're reserving judgment on...you know, like you're supposed to do with freshmen. They won't all work out by any means. But the jury isn't out on any of them.
Eric Berry skews this argument a bit...but you can make a case that the Vols have already gotten as much from Derek Dooley's 2010 and 2011 signees as freshmen and sophomores as they got from the entire 2007-2009 classes.
Derek Dooley is responsible for zero percent of the mess and one hundred percent of the cleanup. The process got slowed down by injuries this year, and has been up against an incredibly difficult schedule. But guys...how could we have realistically expected anything else?
From a player/talent standpoint - which is always the most important standpoint - it took three years for us to fall. It was never going to get fixed right away.
The problem is, we still run thru the T and still play Rocky Top and still wear the orange uniforms. And so we expect the orange uniforms to do what they always do: score touchdowns, make plays, win games. Especially when the opponent is the likes of South Carolina, a program we have a very difficult time accepting as ahead of us at the moment.
So when the orange uniforms don't do those things, we get angry and we look for someone to blame. And since we can't blame Tyler Bray and it gets harder to blame Lane Kiffin every day, we look somewhere else. And right now, that somewhere else is Derek Dooley.
Look, I'm frustrated too. I questioned some coaching issues against the Gamecocks too. And I have nothing to suggest that Derek Dooley is a good coach.
What I do have is evidence that Dooley has us in the right process. I have overwhelming evidence that Tennessee was in a complex situation involving coaching change that made us focus more on who was in charge and less on the players he was coaching.
When you whiff on three consecutive recruiting classes and you play in the SEC, you will suffer. Greatly. From a talent, experience, depth, and intangibles standpoint, the Vols could've been a 3-9 team last season. And they could be doing far worse than competing with good teams for most of the game (because only Oregon last year, LSU this year, and Alabama twice have truly dominated the Vols in the second half, plus Georgia's blowout in Athens).
So yeah, it's frustrating right now, and it feels like absolutely everything has been against us the last few years. But when you strike out on three straight recruiting classes, your program dies. Slowly, Derek Dooley is trying to bring it back to life. And it has to be slowly. We're not there yet, and I don't know when we'll get there...but I believe Dooley has brought us further than we may have had a right to realistically expect.
Realistically, of course, is a word we don't really believe in as Tennessee fans. We want results now, and when we don't get them, we go after someone's head.
But it would be brutally unfair and incredibly tragic if the guy who did the incredibly difficult work of getting this thing pointed back in the right direction - and the author of the Vol For Life idea - got run off by irrational expectations and people before he had a chance to experience the fruit of his labor.
When is the fruit coming? I don't know. I hope it's next year.
But even if we're still in winter right now, I believe Derek Dooley has planted a seed. And slowly, in the face of adversity, and though we may all be questioning it right now...I believe that seed is growing.
So for now, we have no choice but continued patience and continue frustration.
But deep down, I still believe it's growing.
And so we water. And we wait.