26 years slipped right through our hands.
First thing's first: congratulations to Kentucky. How it happened or the records of the teams involved are always less important than the end result, and today the Cats got the one they've been waiting for. This is their day and there's nothing we can or should say to keep them from enjoying it.
As for Tennessee, the first word that should be used is embarrassing, and today is the first time I've used it to describe a result under Derek Dooley. But the Vols earned it, losing to a Kentucky team that hadn't played within a possession of any other non-Ole Miss SEC team this fall, played a wide receiver at quarterback, and was outgained today 276-220. The Vol defense adjusted well after the first drive, but the moment that swung the game was a fumble by Raijon Neal out of the wildcat package on second and goal at the eight yard line. Not only did that play prevent a UT scoring opportunity, but it allowed Kentucky to take advantage of a momentary lapse by the defense on an eight play, 77 yard touchdown drive that would end up being the difference.
Neal's fumble was the second of three turnovers - Tyler Bray, who was sick and it showed, fired an early interception that didn't end up hurting Tennessee. But his final interception was on fourth and 17 to end the game, a sad end to a sad game and a sad season.
Dooley has been saying in the post-game that the Vols aren't very good, and he's right. But that now becomes more of his responsibility than the circumstance he simply walked in to. The Tennessee program has suffered through a three year recruiting failure from 2007-09, the natural attrition that comes from three head coaches in three years, and injuries to its best players in 2011. While Derek Dooley should be and certainly will be held accountable for today's result, which was completely unacceptable, a summary judgment of the Dooley Era is still impossible; we still don't have enough information, and Dooley still shouldn't be judged on the whole with the situation he walked in to and what he's able to do with backup quarterbacks against the most brutal schedule an SEC East team could possibly face. Given the situation he inherited, anybody that tells you they can fairly and intelligently say they know for certain Derek Dooley isn't the man for this job is either overreacting or trying to get more readers/listeners. You can't know yet. None of us can. We don't have enough information. It's not fair to put it on him.
But this is the last time I'll be making that argument after a loss.
2012 now becomes "the year" - not just the year when we expect the Vols to show the improvement we've been waiting on, but the year they'll have to, or it will probably cost Derek Dooley his job.
Is it fair that a guy who walked in to what Dooley walked in to should get only three years to fix it? Probably not - there are still some among the local media and even among the fanbase that, before today, said Dooley needed at least four years before we should really judge him.
But fair went out the window today. The loss to Kentucky not only removes whatever confidence - real or imagined - this team built with the dramatic win over Vanderbilt, and not only removes the possibility of sustaining momentum in a bowl game...but now, we all turn to 2012 and say we've been patient enough. You lose to Kentucky, you lose the benefit of the doubt. Now it's time to show us.
Here's the thing too: you can't just say, "He needs four years" independent of what the team looks like. From a distance, the 2013 Vols should be worse than the 2012 Vols. Consider the possibility that after next season, Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter all go pro. You would also be losing Mychal Rivera and Dallas Thomas, which means your offense would have to rebuild with a new quarterback, new left tackle, and without its top three receiving targets, two of which are clearly game-changers. The Vols will also lose Prentiss Waggner,
Eric Gordon, and Izauea Lanier in the secondary. (EDIT: Gordon and Lanier will be redshirt juniors, not seniors next season)
It's not to say that it's Dooley's fault the 2013 Vols might be worse; every program has a natural ebb and flow, no team gets better every single season. But if Tennessee struggles next year, no one will look ahead to a 2013 team without all of its best offensive players and say, "Let's give it one more try." It's unfortunate, but it's just part of it: the perceived absence of all of those guys will make fans far less patient. It happened to Buzz Peterson in basketball: the 2004-05 Vols graduated Brandon Crump and Scooter McFadgon, which at the time made many of us say, "If Buzz couldn't win with those guys, how will he win without them?"
It's not about a number. You can't say, "Dooley has to win eight next year or he's gone." Because, which eight?
I'll say this: if expansion doesn't change the schedule dramatically and the Vols still play Florida in mid-September, that game is going to matter a tremendous amount. It's not win-or-you're-fired, but Dooley's narrative can go one of two very different ways in that game. We'll come looking for the payoff for our patience. If we get it, most of us will celebrate and jump on board. If we don't, we'll say, "See? I knew he wasn't the man for the job, it's been there all along."
Make no mistake: the 2012 Vols should be good. The offense returns ten starters including a healthy Justin Hunter, hoping to re-create the magic we saw against Cincinnati in September of this year. And a defense that may have even overachieved a tiny bit this season returns nine starters not including Herman Lathers, with a big hole to be filled at defensive tackle and the persistent question of "which four guys?" in the secondary. The schedule should be more kind. The Vols should be better. And they should be expected to be better. And Derek Dooley would probably tell you that next season, that bamboo better grow.
But as we can't beat Kentucky right now, perhaps we should just start with NC State.
As the schedule stands today, that's who the Vols will face next, 280 days from now in, of course, the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where everything always goes so well for the orange and white. 280 days of another good recruiting class, injuries healing up, this year's freshmen taking on greater roles, and another dose of strength and conditioning for the whole team. 280 days of relentless pursuit of continuous improvement.
Dooley had the truest phrase to define this thing three months ago: OPPORTUNITYISNOWHERE. Which one is it? We don't know yet. But in 280 days, we're going to find out once and for all.
I hope Derek Dooley is the man for this job.