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2012: Derek Dooley vs. The Apocalypse

...and now without his defensive coordinator and top young recruiter.

We've known 2012 was going to be "the year" for Derek Dooley ever since the Vols lost to Kentucky. That's even more true today, not just because Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon have left Tennessee for Washington, but because a significant percentage of the Tennessee family has already made up their minds about UT's head coach. Some did when the clock struck zero in Lexington, but a large group joined them today.

Remember this: by all accounts, Justin Wilcox was offered the defensive coordinator position at Texas in December 2010. Texas. The school that won a National Championship in 2005 and played for another in 2009. The school that wraps up recruiting before the season actually starts because it eats its own state alive. The school that single-handedly triggered massive expansion in college football. With a sixty year old head coach who had just lost his coach-in-waiting to Florida. Justin Wilcox could've gone to Austin, done a good job, and reasonably could've been the head coach of the Longhorns one day.

He said no to Texas in December 2010. But he says yes to Washington in January 2012?

Not good, friends.

No disrespect to Washington - we're thousands of miles apart and never cross paths. I couldn't even tell you the last time we were recruiting the same player.

But despite Tennessee's struggles and massive, massive turnover over the last few years, this is not a lateral move. It's a sub-lateral move. If Steve Sarkisian has continued success, it may not look like a sub-lateral move very long. But right now? Since losing Rick Neuheisel after the 2002 campaign, Washington is 37-72. They've appeared in two bowl games. One of them, you'll recall, featured a defense last seen giving up 67 points and - jackpot! - 777 yards in the Alamo Bowl.

So all of this makes all of us come to the same conclusion: if Tennessee's two most coveted assistant coaches, the two guys that almost everyone said the Vols couldn't afford to lose, left a Vol defense that returns nine starters plus Herman Lathers to coach for a program that's won a third of its games in the last decade? They couldn't have done so for football reasons or upward mobility.

We all assume they're jumping off the Titanic.

Let's try to be at least a little rational: the Vols aren't going to fire Derek Dooley right now because he lost his defensive coordinator. That's not in the realm of possibilities. The Vols will take a recruiting hit without Wilcox and Sirmon, and it could be a very serious one, but Dooley will still be the coach at Tennessee in 2012.

But let's also understand this: who's going to jump on the Titanic?

Many of the names that fans are apt to throw out there - starting with John Chavis and flowing down a long way - are much more likely to be head coaching candidates in 2013 than defensive coordinator candidates right now. This means Dooley may have to take a chance on a young up-and-comer who will still be playing with less than a full deck depth-wise, and will have to teach those kids something new. Again.

Here are the Vol coaches and coordinators in the last six years:

  • 2007: Phillip Fulmer - David Cutcliffe - John Chavis
  • 2008: Phillip Fulmer - Dave Clawson - John Chavis
  • 2009: Lane Kiffin - Jim Chaney - Monte Kiffin
  • 2010: Derek Dooley - Jim Chaney - Justin Wilcox
  • 2011: Derek Dooley - Jim Chaney - Justin Wilcox
  • 2012: Derek Dooley - Jim Chaney - ???
We also now know that what we thought would happen in 2011 - an offense that carries a defense and has to win shootouts - may be exactly what happens in 2012. Keep in mind, you don't find any of us saying "screw Wilcox, he sucks" today. That guy is going to be a good head coach one day; he did a better job with a huge mess than he ever got credit for at Tennessee, and we kept waiting to see what could really happen when he got some talent and depth. But now that day is gone.

Tennessee's schedule didn't get any more difficult today, and nothing has happened on the offensive side of the ball. The Vols could still have a ton of firepower in 2012. But the perception and the reality of the program took another huge hit today, and Derek Dooley is now backed into a vicious corner, with many of those who want to be supportive still stuck with the memory of Lexington, where words like patience and unfair died a quick death.

But I would say this: don't give up on Dooley yet.

Not at all because I have any reason to believe he's going to get it done. But simply because this is January, not September.

Dooley's fate will play itself out in nine months. He will be coaching for his job, of that there is no doubt. Until then? He's still the head coach at the University of Tennessee, and I will continue to support him. And I will continue to hope that the Vols go 12-0.

So the question here, today, in January 2012, isn't "who will be the next head coach at Tennessee?" It's "Who will Derek Dooley hire as defensive coordinator?" If no one of merit wants to take a chance here, perhaps Lance Thompson will get a promotion. I don't know. But that's where we are today - we'll worry about who the next head coach is if Dooley fails in the fall.

But in the midst of another long offseason of transition, what's best for Tennessee right now is for this team to grow up, play the way it's capable of playing, and for Dooley to be successful. Dooley's in a corner, no doubt, and not all of it by his own hand. But this is what he's been dealt, and now he's got one play left. His hire at defensive coordinator could go a long way to his own fate in the fall. The odds are stacked high against him, but it's not over yet. And if he leads the Vols to a good season this fall in the face of all this adversity (his favorite word), he'll have really shown us something we can believe in from a coaching and leadership standpoint.

So once more, let's see what our head coach can do in the midst of this mess. Because hoping for the best from Dooley is both the best and only option right now.

Go Vols.