This is an excerpt from Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 Magazine, on sale now.
Adversity: Opportunity is now here?
Until the last two games of the 2011 season, Dooley's Vols were undefeated as the favorite and winless as the underdog. The overtime win over Vanderbilt and the shocking loss at Kentucky may have broken those streaks, but the Vols have still struggled to compete against and beat teams better than them. Also, Tennessee will enter the 2012 season still undefeated under Dooley when leading at halftime, and still winless under Dooley when trailing at halftime. In the last two years the Vols have shown admirable fight against the best teams on their schedule in the first half, but more often than not the opponent has imposed their will on Tennessee early and often in the second half.
Tennessee has shown few signs of life in the face of adversity the last two years, but a couple of examples do stand out. Though the Vols would ultimately fail to win the game, Tyler Bray led Tennessee on a 10 play 63 yard drive in the fourth quarter of the Music City Bowl in December 2010 to retake the lead with less than six minutes to play. And last year Bray led the Vols on a 13 play 80 yard drive against Vanderbilt, tying the game in the fourth quarter with less than seven minutes to play. Two interceptions by the Vol defense led to Tennessee's overtime win, the first fourth-quarter-come-from-behind victory for Tennessee since the Vanderbilt game in 2007.
Nothing handles adversity like talent, and Tennessee will be much better equipped in that department. But despite the wealth of experience that now resides on this team, there is no one left on the roster that knows what it's like to win big games at Tennessee. The character and toughness also required to overcome adversity are only earned by experience, and the Vols need to develop those traits without having to learn them the hard way through additional defeats. This team will write its own legacy, without the excuses of previous failures or the experience of past success. But who will lead the way?
Some will say an 8-4 record will be enough for Derek Dooley to earn another term, while others will argue for something more. There can be other signs of progress, for sure; being competitive against the best teams on the schedule for sixty minutes instead of thirty would certainly be among them.
But for a proud program that has gone through arguably the most difficult four years of any team in college football, the time to win is now. And so for Dooley, his best chance for re-election will come in the month of September, where a fast start can build real momentum but a slow start could lead directly to disaster.
With some fans having prematurely decided that Dooley isn't the right man for the job, it will be very important for the head coach to win as soon as possible. That means September dates with NC State in Atlanta and Florida in Knoxville are monumentally huge. In what will easily be the most important season for Tennessee Football since 2008, those two games on August 31 and September 15 (with FCS foe Georgia State between them) are far and away the most important games of Dooley's coaching career. A win in the season opener and the first victory over Florida since 2004 can build momentum and provide much-needed job security. But early losses could start the snowball rolling downhill, and with games at Georgia on September 29 and versus Alabama on October 20 still looming, there may be no time left to recover. Coaches on the hot seat almost never survive a slow start in September; Phillip Fulmer would agree.
One way or another, change is coming to Knoxville. Will this be the final year of the Derek Dooley Era and the fifth straight year of disappointment and dark times in Knoxville? Or will change on the field lead to a return to not just competitive, but winning football, and strengthen the Dooley regime? Can the head coach earn re-election, or will we be discussing other candidates by late October? There will be no more excuses and no more cries for patience. The first year fans can truly judge Dooley's work on its own merits with a fully restored roster may also become the only year that Dooley gets to prove his worth.
Are the Vols good enough to make it count? And will Derek Dooley earn your vote?