The foreground: the head coach. The background: those that help to decide his fate.
This is going to be a fun tone-setter, isn't it? I started to have this thought on Friday (not really in the build-up to the Akron game, but more of a "oh, this is what the issue is" thing that just happened to fall within the context of a normal game week), but I haven't really gotten off the fence on what Derek Dooley needs to do to be successful. For me, it was always some nebulous I-know-what-progress-looks-like conglomeration of facts based in some sort of mythical vacuum and roughly tied to the number of TDs Tyler Bray threw for. I'm not so sure that really makes sense, though.
Matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that doesn't make sense. For one, we can do things like judge progress based on tangible results on the field. The upheaval in the offseason, involving a bunch of coordinators leaving for pastures of various levels of foliage (it should be noted at this time that Justin Wilcox didn't have much more success in Death Valley with Washington than he did with Tennessee, but presumably he actually remembered to put the right number of guys on the field for every play), that's a data point. This new squad is the closest we've seen to what Dooley thinks of a team.
And yet, I'm not sure the question is simply "Has Derek Dooley made the Vols a better team than when he got here?". I think the answer to that is yes - the stability and the presence of one elite skill seem to point to a definite improvement. There are moments when it all clicks - Cincinnati, NC State - that point to something critical being right. However, improvement doesn't occur in a vacuum.
The question, therefore, shouldn't be on an absolute basis. It needs to be on a relative scale; is Dooley improving the Vols as a team and a program faster than his competitors are improving their teams and programs?
That's a trickier proposition, but I think it's the right question. Absolute improvement is a useful metric when you're talking questions about stability. To that end, 2010 was about absolute improvement; can Dooley recover from the end of the Fulmer era and the Kiffin period and field a competitive team? The answer there, for all intents and purposes, was yes. 2011 was a combination of absolute and relative improvement; depth was a key concern, so recruiting and warm bodies mattered (more so when basically all the key players went down at various points throughout the season, or in Justin Hunter's case, for most of the season), but we wanted to see some relative improvement. That didn't happen, as one terrible day in Lexington can attest.
And so, 2012 is less about absolute improvement. We know that the depth chart is as full as it's been since 2009 (the talent level, broadly speaking, is the best Dooley's seen as well) and we feel pretty confident in saying that the 2012 offense is the best unit so far on either side of the ball during Dooley's tenure. Empirically, this is true as well (the 2011 defense finished 27th in the nation in total defense; let's not talk about the rest of the other units). However, we're past the point of empirical improvement, I think.
It's about empirical improvement. Florida was a team in flux, the pickings of which - we thought - were ripe for the taking. That ....well, yeah. And so, Tennessee is now behind Florida in the pecking order of the SEC East (again) with Georgia and South Carolina appearing to also be well ahead, Alabama and LSU in their own zip code, Missouri showing up in the division, and even teams like Mississippi State making strides. Is that going to be enough? Well, Tennessee plays all those teams save LSU, so we'll know soon enough.
I'm not sure what I need to see from those games. Well, okay, I do know - I need to see wins. Not in every game, but in enough of them to feel like relative improvement is a real thing and that we don't exist to solely provide impressive-on-paper wins for people who don't pay a ton of attention to college football. To some extent, I don't think we're at the point where we're going to be able to win against Georgia, South Carolina, or Alabama, but we should be competitive in those games. Now, Mississippi State and Missouri? Those are the teams we can't fall behind.
Georgia is this week, of course. We need something this week, too. Do we need a win? Well, that's not up to me to decide. But losing, say, 48-3 won't do, nor should it. Giving up won't work.