When Tennessee let Phillip Fulmer go after the 2008 season, one of the main concerns was that the Tennessee program had gotten boring. There were other factors too of course, like the decline in recruiting and a pair of five-win seasons in a four year span, but things just weren't interesting anymore.
Ever since, things have been interesting in a much different way.
Fulmer's replacement came, shook things up, and left at roughly the worst possible time. Hurricane Lane got the Tennessee name out as he had planned, but in many ways it was only in the "no such thing as bad publicity" manner. He split right before signing day after all of the hot coaching names of the season had been signed by other schools already. Tennessee called around but ended up with its fourth or fifth choice in Derek Dooley. That's a rough gauntlet for a program to deal with.
But then things began to turn. Dooley kept the recruiting class largely together, landing what Rivals considered to be one of the top 10 classes nationally. He also appears to be allergic to the kind of shenanigans that Kiffin seemed to invite to the program. He fits in better culturally in Knoxville in ways that his predecessor never could. If Dooley can coach up the players well, it will have been a good trade.
I think everyone understands though that he's going to be allowed some time to turn it around, and it's not just because Tennessee is nearly as loathe as Michigan to firing coaches. The 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes were up to UT's standards, but the composition of the rest of the roster is not terribly talented. There is also the matter of not having a quarterback on the roster who has attempted a pass in college. And oh yeah, the coaching churn has hit almost unprecedented levels to the point that we have no idea what to expect out of the players.
The good news for Tennessee in 2010 is twofold. First, the starters on defense are just about as talented from a recruiting star standpoint as anyone in the SEC but Alabama. That doesn't speak much to the issue of depth and plugging inevitable injury holes, but the top 11 are very good. The second is that the coaching staff appears to be pretty solid. Dooley is a Nick Saban disciple, Jim Chaney provides continuity on offense, and Justin Wilcox ran defenses at Boise State that were consistently outstanding. There is reason for hope down the line.
The offense is not in as good of shape. Of the current projected starters, only Gerald Jones and true freshman Ja'Wuan James were consensus four-star recruits. The rest all have at least one three-star assessment and some even lower than that. Recruiting rankings are not the end-all-be-all of course, but they're not that bad in aggregate. Again, having Chaney stay around is a big time help for that side of the ball. We'll see just how much magic he can work this fall.
I really don't know what to expect out of the Vols this autumn. I can't see them challenging for the SEC East title, but I don't think they'll be in the cellar either. If Dooley can keep everyone together, then they should be able to match last year's record. However if morale slips and the veterans check out mentally, then another five-win season could easily happen. I have no idea which we're going to see.
Tennessee is one of the true enigmas for 2010.