Regardless of how you feel about Alabama as a Tennessee fan, there is no denying that the Tide is one of the Vols' two biggest rivals. For decades, the two teams have determined their own worth largely, if not solely, by measuring themselves against the other. Lately, the two teams have been out of phase, with one viewing the other's great success from its own lowly pit of despair. The chasm between the teams may be deeper and wider in 2010 than it's ever been.
Yet heading into Derek Dooley's first season, Tennessee finds itself in pretty much the same place Alabama was when it hired Nick Saban just a few short seasons ago. There's been a great deal of talk this summer about Dooley having gained the bulk of his coaching experience under Saban's tutelage. When reporters asked Dooley about his coaching legend father Vince this summer, Derek would most often respectfully acknowledge the fact but also quickly note that his resume includes many more instances of Saban's name. Dooley joined Saban's staff at LSU in 2000 as recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, won a national championship with him in 2003, and moved with him to the Miami Dolphins for the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Saban is, reportedly anyway, notoriously difficult to work for, and yet Dooley stuck with him for seven years.
So just how much like Saban is Dooley? Can he be as successful in returning the Vols to great success as Saban has been with the Crimson Tide?
We won't know the answer to those questions for several years, but we do know one thing: 2010 Tennessee looks a lot like 2007 Alabama. Remarkably, the Vols and the Tide have an identical cumulative record for the five-year span preceding the arrival of their current coaches:
*Funny note: In looking these up, I noticed that the Alabama media guide denotes the Tide's vacated games not with the dreaded asterisk, but with a percentage sign, which has a mildly obfuscating effect on the reader. When you look at it, your first thought is, "Huh, I wonder what that means." rather than, "Oh, there's something funky about that information that means I shouldn't take it at face value." Aaaaanyway . . . .
You'll recall that Saban didn't exactly set Tuscaloosa on fire his first season, instead leading the team to a 7-6 record:
|Sat 09/01/2007||WESTERN CARO.||52 - 6||W|
|Sat 09/08/2007||@ Vanderbilt||24 - 10||W|
|Sat 09/15/2007||ARKANSAS||41 - 38||W|
|Sat 09/22/2007||GEORGIA||23 - 26||L OT|
|Sat 09/29/2007||@ Florida St. ^||14 - 21||L|
|Sat 10/06/2007||HOUSTON||30 - 24||W|
|Sat 10/13/2007||@ Mississippi||27 - 24||W|
|Sat 10/20/2007||TENNESSEE||41 - 17||W|
|Sat 11/03/2007||LSU||34 - 41||L|
|Sat 11/10/2007||@ Mississippi St.||12 - 17||L|
|Sat 11/17/2007||LA.-MONROE||14 - 21||L|
|Sat 11/24/2007||@ Auburn||10 - 17||L|
|Sun 12/30/2007||@ Colorado * ^||30 - 24||W|
The Tide's 2007 regular season ended with a four-game losing streak and featured a really embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe followed by a really embarrassing quote from Saban. The constant refrain around the 'sphere? Alabama paid $4M for that? That's $X per win! (At one time, I think the math made it something like $666k, which was a remarkably fun statistic for someone often referred to as Nick Satan.)
Well, we all know the rest of the story. Saban's 2008 team went undefeated in the regular season, got cocky and lost the SEC championship and its bowl game to Utah, and then turned that bitter end into a national championship the following year.
Yes, Saban was a proven commodity. He'd previously won a national championship at LSU. He was a marquee hire, and 'Bama broke the bank to get him so they could build a bigger bank. Despite Dooley's apprenticeship under Saban, he is not Saban. At least not yet.
The point of this post isn't to suggest that Tennessee will go undefeated in 2011 or win the national championship in 2012. The point is this: Not only is a .500-ish 2010 season for the Vols a respectable result, it could, in fact, lay the foundation for much better things to come.