On January 12, 2010, after leading the Vols to a 7-6 opening season that included blowout wins over Georgia and South Carolina and a heartbreaking 12-10 loss to Alabama, Lane Kiffin left Tennessee to become the head coach at Southern California, leaving athletic director Mike Hamilton scrambling to find a replacement just one year after Kiffin himself replaced Phillip Fulmer. After Vols fans took a deep breath (and burned some mattresses), message board rumors began swirling about who Tennessee would tab to lead their football program.
Names like Troy Calhoun and David Cutcliffe were tossed out, but the most popular option was to hire defensive coordinator Will Muschamp away from Texas. Muschamp, however, was not interested in the Tennessee job. He stayed at Texas another year before becoming the head coach at Florida, where in 2013 he would lead the Gators to their worst single season record since going 0-10-1 in 1979. But after dodging a bullet with Muschamp's lack of interest, Hamilton walked right back into the line of fire when he hired Derek Dooley, who was coming off a 4-8 record in his third season at Louisiana Tech.
Supporters claimed that Dooley was a good coach--pointing to his 8-5 record in his second season with the Bulldogs--who was undone by terrible luck with injuries in 2009, but the bad luck followed him from Ruston to Knoxville, where in his first season, Dooley's Vols lost two games that they led when the clock hit 00:00. Dooley's second season started with some promise with blowout wins over
Wyoming Montana and Cincinnati, but things quickly turned sour the following week, when the Vols lost star receiver Justin Hunter to a torn ACL on their first offensive possession in Gainesville. It was all downhill from there. Dooley's teams went just 1-14 in their last fifteen SEC games--a mind-boggling number for a program with Tennessee's pedigree--including a 10-7 loss to one of the worst Kentucky teams of the decade and the worst loss to Vanderbilt since 1954. And he wasn't any better off the field, leaving Tennessee with a dearth of overall talent and stunning zero offensive linemen in the 2012 recruiting class. It wasn't hard to argue that hiring Dooley was the biggest disaster in Tennessee football history.
But what if, rather than hiring an unproven up-and-comer coming off a 4-8 season at Louisiana Tech, Tennessee had hired another unproven up-and-comer coming off a 10-4 season at Houston? Kevin Sumlin was reportedly interested in the job, and while he inherited a better situation at Houston than Dooley did at Louisiana Tech, he had a longer resume as a coordinator, serving as co-offensive coordinator for a pair of Big XII champions at Oklahoma. He also had more wins as a head coach, posting 8-5 and 10-4 records in his first two seasons at Houston. And he already had an SEC road win with Houston, notching a 31-24 victory in Starkville over Dan Mullen's first Mississippi State team. Sumlin would've been a risky hire, with only two years of experience as a head coach, but he had proven that he could coach an offense, and hiring him would've been no more risky than hiring Dooley. What if Mike Hamilton had made the Sumlin hire instead? How would Tennessee's last half-decade have been different?
It goes without saying that the last five years would have been better. But for more details on how, it will be instructive to look at Sumlin's tenure at Texas A&M, where he has been head coach since 2012. Sumlin's situation at Texas A&M in 2012 is undoubtedly different than the one he would have inherited at Tennessee in 2010. The 2011 Aggies had had top ten talent but could not escape the late-game collapse under Mike Sherman, losing by 1 to #7 Oklahoma State, by 4 to #18 Arkansas, in overtime to Missouri, in four overtimes to #17 Kansas State, and by 2 to Texas, in addition to a more decisive loss to #7 Oklahoma. While they only returned 13 starters in 2012, those starters included four offensive linemen, two of which would be top ten picks in the NFL draft, and future Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel was already on the roster. Sumlin would make good use of that talent, as his first Aggies team would lose narrowly to Florida in their 2012 opener before reeling off 11 wins in their last 12 games, including a 29-24 road victory against eventual national champion Alabama and a 41-13 bowl win over Big XII power Oklahoma. They took a step back after a stunning debut, going 9-4 in 2013 and 8-5 in 2014, but Sumlin's worst season as Texas A&M head coach would've been Tennessee's best since 2007.
So how would Sumlin have done at Tennessee? He proved he could recruit at Texas A&M, bringing in top ten classes in his first two full years at the school, and while Texas has far more in-state talent than Tennessee, Fulmer, Kiffin, and Butch Jones have all showed that a good recruiter would have no problem selling the Vols. So we can assume that Sumlin would have stocked the cupboard in Knoxville. His first season would not have neared what he accomplished at A&M, simply because nobody was taking the 2010 roster to 11-2. While there was a promising young quarterback in Tyler Bray, the Vols were not returning a Jake Matthews or a Luke Joeckel. Even with talent at quarterback and receiver, the offensive line would have been a limiting factor, and the Tennessee defense wasn't impressing anybody.
Fortunately for Tennessee, the whole SEC East was suffering a down year in 2010, and while the Vols drew a pair of top ten teams from the West, they also drew 4-8 (1-7) Ole Miss. With Kevin Sumlin working with Tyler Bray, Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore, and very likely Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, could the Vols have mustered enough to beat a Florida team that ultimately went 8-5? A Georgia team that went 6-7? A 9-5 South Carolina team that Dooley's Vols scared in Columbia? Turning any of those into wins would've given the Vols a 7-5 regular season, and even if Tennessee couldn't nab any of the three, they still could've bested Dooley's mark by beating an eminently beatable North Carolina team in the Music City Bowl.
What would likely be a 7-6 or 8-5 mark in 2010 would be followed by a tough slate in 2011. While you have to assume that a good recruiter and QB coach could find a better back-up quarterback than Justin Worley, and while Hunter may not have gotten injured in another offensive system or in another strength and conditioning program, the Vols still had four top ten teams on the schedule in 2011 and an offensive line consisting of almost all sophomores. Given the quality Sumlin has showed at Texas A&M, we can assume he would have reversed the Kentucky result and probably nabbed at least one against Florida, Georgia, and the top ten opponents, but the Vols were probably looking at another season not much better than 8-5 unless the injury luck reversed entirely and Tennessee came out on the right side of a few shootouts.
But in 2012, Sumlin would have shone at Tennessee. Perhaps the Vols don't get Cordarrelle Patterson, but they still have Bray, Hunter, whatever receiving talent Sumlin could recruit to Knoxville, and quite possibly Rogers--it's not a stretch to think Rogers would've fared better under a more disciplined regime--in addition to an offensive line that was becoming one of the best in the conference. Defense is not Sumlin's forte, but the 2012 defense would've been more talented under Sumlin's recruiting than under Dooley's, and it's safe to say that the Sunseri experiment never happens if Sumlin is in Knoxville. A Tennessee team that actually outplayed Florida for 40 minutes before folding likely would've beaten the Gators in front of GameDay in Knoxville. Shootout losses to Georgia and Mississippi State may well turn to wins, and it's not hard to imagine Alabama coming to town for a showdown of undefeated, top five teams on the Third Saturday in October. Sumlin's history doesn't have enough defense to predict a national title in 2012, but the Vols easily could've posted double-digit wins for the first time since 2007, and it's not a stretch to see them taking two from Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina and ending up in Atlanta for their first SEC Championship rematch with Alabama.
The 2013 offense probably would have taken a step back, because even top ten recruiting doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to replace your best playmakers without a hiccup, and the Vols still would've lost to Oregon, Alabama, Auburn, and Missouri (Texas A&M lost to that Missouri team), but they likely would've beaten Florida, Vanderbilt, and either Georgia or South Carolina--perhaps both--for another 8-5ish year. And after signing a highly-rated legacy class--those guys weren't straying from Knoxville with competent leadership in charge--the Vols would return to 8-4 or 9-3 in 2014 and be in the SEC East race through November.
Where would the Vols be now under Kevin Sumlin? They may not have Josh Dobbs, but they'd have found a solid QB somewhere, and the addition of young stars like Jalen Hurd and Derek Barnett to a talented group of upperclassmen would make the Vols the popular favorites for the SEC East title, even before you consider a gaggle of underclassmen like Josh Malone, Dillon Bates, Todd Kelly Jr., and Kahlil McKenzie, all ready to break out. In short, Tennessee would be where they are now, except better. While the players may not be the same, Sumlin would have gotten similar talent to that Jones brought to Knoxville. The difference would be that the Vols wouldn't be relying so heavily on freshmen and sophomores, as the 2011 and 2012 classes would be making bigger contributions in their junior and senior years, and the Tennessee fan base would have been spared the miserable 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Like Jones', Sumlin's ceiling is still unknown, and a couple years from now, Vols fans could be anywhere from celebrating championships to grumbling about a coach who brought back 8-4 and 10-2 seasons but couldn't get over the title hump. But the last five years sure would've been a lot more fun. On the minus side, with a football program on the rise obscuring the 2011 basketball fiasco, Mike Hamilton might still be around. So there's that.