So far, Derek Dooley's perfect hair, orange pants, and sharp tongue have had a greater impact on the SEC than his teams have.
It's difficult to say that any program has been more snakebit than Tennessee over the past few years.
Phillip Fulmer won at least 10 games in nine of his 16 full seasons as head coach. By the end of 2008, though, he had won 10 games in just one of his last four seasons with a pair of five-win seasons in there. Tennessee made the tough decision to push him out, one I can't blame them much for. All they had to do was look at the state of FSU football at the time, which was not good, for what can happen when a coach hangs on too long.
Mike Hamilton made the bold move of hiring young gun Lane Kiffin. Kiffin came in, talked bigger than his accomplishments, won all of seven games, and skipped town shortly before signing day. The one recruiting class he did sign ended up containing a disproportionate amount of malcontents, dismissals, and transfers.
With little time to find a new guy, UT found Derek Dooley. In his first year, he scraped by and made a bowl game despite having a depleted roster and a coaching staff put together at the last minute. The 2011 season was supposed to be a chance for Dooley to find his legs with the program, but a series of unfortunate injuries to very important players like Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter torpedoed the season. Just how killer was the loss of Hunter? He was the team's third-leading receiver in terms of yards despite being lost for the season after one catch in the third game. The Vols won only one conference game, an overtime victory over Vanderbilt, and they not only missed a bowl but saw their decades long winning streak over Kentucky fall.
Dooley called 2011 his "real Year 1", and he could definitely use a big second-year bump in this his "real Year 2". Complicating the matter is the fact that seven coaches, including the entire defensive staff, have turned over since 2011. In Dooley's mind, though, that's actually a good thing. In his typical blunt honesty, he said that while some coaches left because it wasn't a good fit, others left because of fear of how big a turnaround job Tennessee is right now.
The saving grace is that Dooley picked off a key member of Nick Saban's Alabama staff in Sal Sunseri to be his new defensive coordinator. Dooley famously cut his coaching teeth on Saban's LSU and Miami staffs, so finding a Sabanite for that side of the ball is a natural fit. All of the other defensive coaches have some kind of connection to Sunseri in the past, so any staff issues that might have persisted in the past should, in theory, be gone.
The program has had some continuity at the top with Dooley and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney at the least, and recent recruiting classes are no longer suffering from high attrition like that 2009 class did. There is a decent amount of talent on board. The pieces could be in place for a marked improvement over 2010-11.
The question is whether Dooley and the Vols will continue to have such bad fortune. They've already had to dismiss promising tight end Cameron Clear after he was found using a stolen laptop. It wouldn't be a shock at all to see the turf monster strike and cripple the team again, as it still is thin in some areas.
Of all SEC teams, Tennessee might have the widest range of possible outcomes. If everyone stays healthy and the defensive coaching staff transplant takes, the team could have a great year thanks to a manageable schedule that includes just four true road games. If things take a turn for the worse again, UT won't be too far off from where it has been the past couple years.
Betting on what kind of luck a team will have is never a solid move, but if it wasn't for bad luck, Dooley wouldn't have no luck at all so far in Knoxville. This team is one of the great SEC wild cards for 2012.