A Dangerous Hope in Knoxville

On the cusp of Tennessee's first scrimmage of spring practice - the newest and best opportunity for we the fans to break out our jump to conclusions mat, if they release the stats - we call our attention back to the last time we saw this football team in action, and the thought that's been dominant since the clock struck zero in Lexington:

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.

A team with an almost entirely new coaching staff and an almost entirely experienced roster will face that truth together this season. Whether it deserved a stay of execution or not, patience is dead in Knoxville, and I for one am not sad to see it go. It's been an especially exhausting four years here throughout the entire athletic department. Even our loudest cries for patience were offered without an ounce of joy. But for better or for worse, those days are over.

This season will be dangerous in one of two ways, and it probably won't take us past the end of September to figure out which one it's going to be. There is a very real possibility that this year will be dangerous to the job security of our head coach, and that Derek Dooley's time will be up if the Vols don't produce. With many Tennessee fans having prematurely made up their minds about him, and knowing that "I was wrong" is one of the most difficult things for human beings in general and SEC football fans specifically to say, the clock is ticking and Dooley knows it. And he should also know that it will be more about the month of September than the difference between 7-5 and 8-4. If the Vols leave September 4-1 against a schedule that includes NC State, Florida, and Georgia, I think Dooley will make it. But if it's 3-2 or worse, the snowball will be rolling and an October date with Alabama will offer little chance of slowing it down. It's a dangerous time to be Derek Dooley.

But maybe...just maybe...it might also be a dangerous time to be in Tennessee's way.

Consider the questions we were asking at this time each of the last three springs:

2009

  • Who is Lane Kiffin?
  • Jonathan Crompton (please no), Nick Stephens, or B.J. Coleman? (Check out the results on this poll from February 12, 2009)
  • With no one on the roster with experience at tackle besides Chris Scott, who will start at the other tackle position? (This turned out to be the late Aaron Douglas)

2010

  • Who is Derek Dooley?
  • Where is Bryce Brown?
  • Matt Simms or Nick Stephens or Tyler Bray?
  • Do we have any defensive tackles on the roster other than Montori Hughes?
  • Do we have any offensive linemen on the roster at all?

2011

  • Are Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter good enough to be productive starters in the SEC as sophomores?
  • Where is Janzen Jackson?
  • Seriously, do we have any defensive tackles on the roster if Malik Jackson plays end?

The death of patience is dangerous because this year, the Vols are putting in a new defense with a new defensive coordinator. So there are a few real questions this spring about the way guys like Jacques Smith look at linebacker instead of end or how well someone plays nose tackle. However, a new system will offer no refuge for a coach already on the hot seat; ask Phillip Fulmer and Dave Clawson about that.

But the good news this year? There's a chance that Tennessee could trot out a lineup against NC State that features 20 of 22 players as returning starters, plus both kickers. And the two places where you're guaranteed to see a new starter? Tauren Poole is gone, but the Vols couldn't run the ball at all last year anyway, and Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal have plenty of experience. And Darrington Sentimore may not be a returning starter at Tennessee, but he could easily win a starting end job this spring and bring his experience from Alabama to the table.

It's not that the Vols don't have problems - the aforementioned "can't run the football" thing has to be addressed - it's just that for the first time in years, we're familiar with all the pieces and we really like a lot of them. We feel great about Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers (on the field), Justin Hunter, Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson, and Prentiss Waggner. If they're healthy, you can add Herman Lathers and Brent Brewer to that list. We like our options on the offensive line (how great is it just to have options?) and in the secondary. We eager to see the progression of young players like Cameron Clear and Antonio Richardson. And we're excited about seeing guys like Maurice Couch and Jacques Smith at new positions.

The Vols haven't been able to put it together under Derek Dooley, but they've also never been a full team with full depth and full experience. This is the first year we can truly judge Dooley's work, even if it may be his last.

That's a factor multiplied by the presence of early entry talent on the offensive side of the football. Tyler Bray continues to be projected near the top of 2013 NFL Mock Drafts, as high as second overall from WalterFootball.com, which had him at number one overall last year and bumped him down only because Matt Barkley came back to school. A full season of Bray+Rogers+Hunter could make Tennessee one of the best passing attacks in the nation...and one full season may be all we get of it.

Make no mistake: it's not that we or anyone else are projecting the Vols to win the National Championship (check back with us in August for that, of course). However, the real hope here is that Tennessee can return to the state of reasonably high expectations the program deserves.

My personal litmus test with Tennessee Football fans is always the 2007 season. Did you enjoy the 2007 season? Did you think it was a good year? If the answer is no, I think your expectations are unrealistic and are keeping you from enjoying things you should. No team wins the National Championship or the SEC every year. But Tennessee should always be competing for the SEC East title, and any year we win it is a good one. Winning your division gets you to Atlanta, where as we know, anything can happen (unless you're us, and then the Georgia Dome will bring out the worst in you). And under the current BCS format or the future playoff format, winning the SEC is always going to give you a chance to be in the national championship conversation.

This is the first time under Derek Dooley we can reasonably expect this team to compete at the level Tennessee Football deserves. I continue to believe that there will be very little middle ground for this team this fall: I think we're going to see change on the field or there will be change at the top. This team cannot be average, nor should it be.

Hope is growing across campus. Dave Serrano unquestionably has the baseball team moving in the right direction in his first year. And it only took Cuonzo Martin one year to put basketball expectations back to where they were under Bruce Pearl - early 2013 Bracketologies have the Vols as a six seed in next year's field, a UT team that will have the talent and experience to play into the second weekend of the dance. By the time all of that has all been played out, it'll have been five years since the Vols put together a good season in both football and basketball (2007-08). But as one of the very few athletic institutions that have the ability to excel in both sports on an annual basis, it's nice to know that we could be very close to getting back to that.

Hope, as always, remains dangerous. Cynicism continues to be the easy choice, and we see it throughout Big Orange Country, from blogosphere to message boards to your daily conversations. Hope allows for the possibility of disappointment, and we're certainly well acquainted in the last few years.

But what comes to life every day at Neyland Stadium and Haslam Field this spring is the promise of real hope - not idiot optimism, not hoping for the best against an impossible schedule, not relying on freshmen to come in and be great right away. It may be hard to see and feel because the ghosts of Lexington are still fresh in our minds, and you may have already made up your mind too soon...but there's a real hope that now quietly suggests that this Tennessee team might, in fact, be good.

If it's not, it has the chance to cost Derek Dooley everything and set the program back again. But if it is, Tennessee could be on the edge of the season we've been looking for since Phillip Fulmer was carried off on the shoulders of his offensive linemen. It's interesting to note that the last time we saw it we were again in Lexington, four overtimes and four long years ago. Now having come full circle, is it time for Tennessee to be good again?

The bamboo can't show itself until September. But here and now in April, we watch for any sign that this time, this hope might be real...and instead of Tennessee being a danger to itself, it's time for the Vols to be a danger to the rest of the college football world again.

The scrimmage today. NC State in 147 more.

Go Vols.

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