Let's pretend Lane Kiffin never happened. See, you're feeling better about this post already.
Let's pretend Phillip Fulmer kept his job following the 2008 season, turned in the exact same 7-6 record Kiffin had in 2009, and was then replaced by Derek Dooley. It's easy, and sometimes fun, to blame Kiffin for the program being in such bad shape, but for the sake of this argument let's pretend he never put on an orange and white visor. Because if we look past the cheap answer, we might find the real one.
I believe, very strongly, that Tennessee isn't struggling simply because Lane Kiffin coached for one season and then left in the middle of the night. Tennessee isn't struggling because Derek Dooley can't coach. Tennessee doesn't even necessarily have the record they have because of all the injuries this season; some of the margins might have been closer, but the end result would likely be only one game better with Tyler Bray instead of Matt Simms and Justin Worley.
Tennessee is struggling because the teams that are beating them have better players. Rocket science, I know.
Last week we took a look at the second half collapses of Dooley's Vols. That list now includes #13 South Carolina last week, who shut Tennessee out and dominated both sides of the ball in the second half. But the teams on that list - eleven of Dooley's twelve losses here - are still noteworthy. Almost all of them are ranked in the Top 20, and the ones that aren't still had plenty of talent.
But it's not just that Tennessee has played a brutal schedule under Dooley's watch. It's who the Vols have lined up on their own sideline.
The primary reason Tennessee has fallen is the program's recruiting classes in 2007, 2008, and 2009. As we'll see after the jump, those three years weren't kind of bad...they were absolute disasters. In a row. And Derek Dooley - who wasn't around for any of them - is simply left to pick up the pieces.
Here's a complete look at the Vols' recruiting classes in those three seasons - player rankings are from Rivals.com, and players are listed in order of their rating system.
2007 - Phillip Fulmer - National Rank #3
- Five Stars: Chris Donald, Kenny O'Neal, Brent Vinson, Eric Berry, Ben Martin
- Four Stars: Lennon Creer, Donald Langley, Gerald Jones, Darris Sawtelle, Ahmad Paige, Nevin McKenzie, Rolando Melancon, Chris Walker, B.J. Coleman, Rae Sykes, DeAngelo Willingham
- Three Stars: Deshaun Barnes, Anthony Anderson, C.J. Fleming, Savion Frazier, Denarius Moore, Kevin Cooper, Daryl Vereen, William Brimfield, Dennis Rogan, Rufus Williams, Art Evans, Cody Pope, Josh Hawkins, Todd Campbell, Tyler Maples
- Two Stars: Cory Hall
- Five Stars: None
- Four Stars: Gerald Williams, E.J. Abrams-Ward, Aaron Douglas, Marlon Walls
- Three Stars: Casey Kelly, Preston Bailey, Rod Wilks, Tauren Poole, Prentiss Waggner, Steven Fowlkes, Willie Bohannon, Dallas Thomas, Austin Johnson, Ben Bartholomew, Herman Lathers
- Two Stars: Stephaun Raines, Carson Anderson, Montori Hughes
- Five Stars: Janzen Jackson, Bryce Brown
- Four Stars: Jerod Askew, Marlon Walls, Nu'Keese Richardson, Eric Gordon, Darren Myles, David Oku, James Green, Marsalis Teague, JerQuari Schofield
- Three Stars: Robert Nelson, Arthur Jeffery, Naz Oliver, Greg King, Mike Edwards, Zach Rogers, Daniel Hood, Rae Sykes, Kevin Revis, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, Toney Williams
When you whiff on three consecutive recruiting classes and you play in the SEC, you will suffer. Greatly. From a talent, experience, depth, and intangibles standpoint, the Vols could've been a 3-9 team last season. And they could be doing far worse than competing with good teams for most of the game (because only Oregon last year, LSU this year, and Alabama twice have truly dominated the Vols in the second half, plus Georgia's blowout in Athens).