Because Derek Dooley refers to 2010 as Year Zero, we may have to put our exceedingly optimistic expectations for Year Two on hold (even though the same optimistic expectations have become reality in Year Two on a number of SEC campuses). Viewing 2012 as "The Year" for both Tennessee and its head coach is certainly a much more logical stance to take.
Looking back, while the talent in the SEC was certainly more spread around in the last decade than it was in the 90's - making life better for the league but more difficult for the Vols - Tennessee's downfall the last three seasons cannot be laid solely at the feet of inferior talent. The '07 team won the East, beat the team that finished second nationally like a drum and was two throws away from beating the eventual National Champions. Three years removed from what happened next, I still think 2008 had more to do with Dave Clawson than anyone wearing a Tennessee uniform. And the 2009 squad was a nine win team in disguise with six players taken in the first five rounds of the NFL Draft.
It really wasn't until last year when the absence of both talent and depth really caught up with Tennessee, and the talent portion of that equation would've been an issue even if Lane Kiffin was on the sideline last season. When you're hurting in both categories, you can't put it all back together right away - a true rebuilding process takes more than one season.
It's really unfamiliar territory for us - in the last twenty years, only twice have the Vols gone into a season knowing it was a rebuilding year, and that's counting 1994 after Jerry Colquitt went down on the opening drive. In both 1994 and 2000, we knew we weren't going to be as good as the year before, but we also knew that we would only be down for one season. And we were right: both the '94 and '00 Vols went 8-4; the '95 Vols went 11-1 and finished second nationally, and the '01 Vols were 10-1 and ranked second before they lost in the SEC Championship Game.
Last year was rock bottom. More specifically, the first seven games were rock bottom; Tennessee found a pulse against South Carolina then started coming back to life in November. But just as we question exactly how good Tyler Bray will be because of the competition he faced, can you truly rebuild against Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky?
So maybe 2011 is the true rebuilding year. And if that's the case, there is certainly reason to believe that we are once again just one season away from being right where we want to be.
The Long View
The post-spring depth chart includes just five senior starters. That number will drop to four if Janzen Jackson returns and may do so even if he doesn't; Anthony Anderson is already listed as only a co-starter at corner, and may not beat out any of the guys who will show up this summer.
It could be a tough situation for leadership this year, but it could give the Vols ten returning starters on offense and eight on defense for the 2012 season.
While it's tough to expect the world out of a bunch of sophomores, the key contributors on the Vol offense should hit their junior seasons with as much (if not more) experience than most seniors. You have to label this whole thing with "if they stay healthy", but...Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter, and most of the offensive linemen would be three year starters in 2012. All of those guys had solid freshman seasons, and most of them look like guys we'll see on Sundays in the future. The Vols would only have to replace Tauren Poole, with Rajion Neal already playing his way into the conversation and Marlin Lane arriving on campus this fall. And while a running game is always important, in Jim Chaney's offense it looks like the Vols will be pass-heavy as long as Bray is around. If you have visions of the Vol offense being good this season, then you have visions of them being truly great in 2012.
It's much less of a sure thing defensively, starting with the team's best player: Janzen Jackson may never return to begin with, or he could come back and have a sensational season...and then turn pro. However, the Vols have both talent and depth in the secondary that should mature with or without Jackson.
That's not the case in the front seven. The Vols have two senior starters at linebacker right now, plus Malik Jackson at defensive tackle. Austin Johnson has had a nose for the football whenever he got on the field behind Nick Reveiz, and Malik Jackson is the Vols' best defensive lineman...so long term, it looks like the biggest questions the 2012 Vols will face are at defensive tackle and middle linebacker.
It's already true that Tennessee needs Maurice Couch to live up to his expectations more than any other newcomer. But long term, the two most important freshmen in the 2011 recruiting class are A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt (with an honorable mention to Marlin Lane, depending on how good Rajion Neal actually becomes). The Vols appear to be filling one defensive end spot with whatever warm body they can find right now, and would be extremely thankful if Maggitt materialized right away as a viable option there. And while John Propst is also an option at middle linebacker after Austin Johnson and the Vols have guys who played a bunch of snaps outside for Monte Kiffin (Greg King & Nigel Mitchell-Thornton), if A.J. Johnson can find the field this season he may be the best option at MLB next season.
So there will be at least a couple of serious questions at DT and MLB, but the rest of the team will be experienced at worst. And at best?
Year Three is when coaches get made or broken, a fact Dooley has known from the beginning. If he can't get the Vols "back" by the end of 2012, who knows if he'll get another chance to do it in Year Four. Tennessee should have the talent and the experience to compete for a championship next year. There are no juggernauts in the SEC East right now - the window is open. And the schedule will allow it: the toughest non-conference battle will be the season opener in Atlanta with NC State (however, we do have a Georgia Dome warning here), and the SEC West rotation will wave goodbye to LSU, sending Arkansas to Knoxville and the Vols to Starkville. With Florida and Alabama coming to Neyland, 2012 should be Tennessee's easiest on-paper schedule in recent memory.
It's a year away, but it still feels more realistic than blatantly optimistic to expect the Vols to be right there in 2012. So if we're a year away, what does this year need to look like?
The Short View
Maggitt and Johnson may be the most important freshmen eventually, but DeAnthony Arnett and Justin Coleman are the most important freshmen immediately. The door is clearly open for a number three wide receiver on this team, a player who would certainly benefit from Tyler Bray and all the attention that Rogers and Hunter will receive. Arnett is Tennessee's highest-rated recruit from this class, and he could have a chance to make a real contribution right away. Coleman's importance goes way up if Janzen Jackson stays away, but should still find the field for a team that couldn't even run a dime package last year for lack of quality bodies.
Aside from the new faces, the Vols need more than just their potential superstars to improve with experience. We all feel like Bray, Rogers, Hunter, Ja'Wuan James and James Stone are potential NFL players. What about the other offensive linemen? How much better can they get? And even if Janzen is the only future NFL player on defense, how much better will the Vols look in their second year under Justin Wilcox?
It's easy to just say "we need to improve" and hope it'll get better; the assumption is it really has to, especially on the offensive line. But if the Vols are rebuilding, then they need to, you know...build.
So the bar for this fall should be set at 8-4.
It lines up with fan expectation - though we're working hard to re-establish it for 2012, our blind optimism has been beaten out of us the last three years. 8-4 is the dominant expectation among the fanbase, and though it may be sad to say, 8-4 would signify real progress.
It would be the best regular season in four years. And if we want to be in the championship conversation in 2012? Let's just say it would be hard to put ourselves there if we end up spending the four previous years going 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, and something else less than eight wins this fall.
Coaches get three years, but if they don't show signs of life in the first two, the third becomes more about desperation than hope. Dooley doesn't have to make buyers of all of us this season, but making progress would be absolutely huge.
To me, eight wins doesn't sound crazy or even overly optimistic. Logic suggests something like this:
- Don't lose to: Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo, MTSU, Vanderbilt, or Kentucky
- Win two of: at Florida, Georgia, LSU, at Alabama, South Carolina, at Arkansas
Say this for Dooley: the Vols won all of the games they were favored in last season, something Lane Kiffin wasn't able to do. While the Vols haven't swept the non-conference since 2006, it hasn't been this easy in twenty years. And while I would still trade its ease for another shot at North Carolina, Tennessee will play the hand it is dealt. If the Vols get "back" by 2012, then we'll be ready when the non-conference ramps up again in 2013.
Six wins against the lower tier will get UT bowl eligible, but this isn't last year and that shouldn't be the goal. And while 7-5 would be an improvement for Dooley, one big win surrounded by five losses almost certainly won't feel like progress. Tennessee needs to get two from the upper tier. Two would be enough to make the fans believe. Georgia and Carolina should be games we can give ourselves a chance to win in Knoxville. Florida has a first year head coach and plenty of questions. And much the same as you can probably expect the Vols to really struggle with a team they should beat (like UAB), you'll also probably see Tennessee have a chance to win a game they have no business being in (like LSU). I believe eight wins are out there. Success last year was bowl eligibility, and Dooley got it. Success this year is eight wins.
While we're talking about it taking until 2012 for this team to arrive, it's worth noting that just splitting that upper tier - 3-3 with the right wins - could be enough to win the East this year. The Vols were extra time in Baton Rouge and four turnovers in Columbia away from winning the East last year.
But we don't have to win the East or nine games for this year to be what it needs to be. Get to 8-4 by any means possible. Win the Outback/Chick-Fil-A/Gator/Music City as the icing on the cake. Most importantly, keep Tennessee Football moving forward. And set yourself up to make sure that we don't use this criteria to define success for a very, very long time after that.