Wrapping up the season for each of the SEC teams
Let's start by restating the obvious caveat that has to accompany anything written about Derek Dooley's tenure as football coach at Tennessee: With the possible exception of Mike Shula, it's hard to think of any coach in the last decade who has been dealt a worse hand to start his SEC head coaching career than Derek Dooley. And Dooley might even give Shula a run for his money.
Remember that Dooley came in after the Lane Kiffin Variety Hour, and Kiffin had followed the implosion of the Phillip Fulmer regime. Dooley started out well below the number of scholarship athletes he was allowed to have. There were challenges in Knoxville, and that shouldn't be forgotten.
The question is, how long should Dooley get to use that excuse. He's 11-14 in two seasons, lost to Kentucky for the first time since Ronald Reagan was celebrating his re-election and handed in two consecutive losing seasons for the first time in 100 years. Literally. (The last time Tennessee even had two non-winning years back to back was 1977-78.) This is not standard bump in the road for a new Tennessee football coach; this is the kind of futility that Knoxville actually hasn't seen since the program was 15 years old.
Before the season, Dooley took to defusing expectations for 2011 by saying that 2010 had really served as "Year Zero" and 2011 would be "Year One" -- a not-so-subtle way of asking fans not to look for the cliched second-year bounce. But certainly Dooley's team would make some unambiguous progress in the first real year. Not really.
|2010||SEC Rank||NCAA Rank||2011||SEC Rank||NCAA Rank|
|Passing Efficiency Offense||136.46||8||41||125.78||6||69|
|Passing Yardage Offense||254.5||4||30||242.6||3||50|
|Passing Efficiency Defense||116.84||4||30||125.58||10||48|
|Passing Yardage Defense||229.6||8||81||177.8||6||12|
Even if you want to be kind, that's mixed progress at best. And the coach responsible for area that made the most clear-cut progress (defense) has already left for Washington.
Sure, there were plenty of reasons things went downhill for the Vols. They lost their best wide receiver for the season in September. That wasn't helped when Tyler Bray went down for five games -- including four of Tennessee's seven losses. Oh, and that's before you even get to the bizarre game-ending issues that always seem to happen to this Tennessee team. You hate to keep making excuses for the guy, but Derek Dooley was dealt a very bad hand.
Then again, there are other reasons to wonder whether Dooley is in over his head. He's compared his team to the Germans during World War II -- and then apologized to the German people, who would seem to be the last people you would be worried about offending with that metaphor. He's engaged in pointless and damaging battles with players seeking releases, such as DeAnthony Arnett -- who asked to be allowed to transfer after his father had multiple heart attacks. In both of the instances where Dooley has drawn attention with his transfer policies -- with Arnett and Bryce Brown -- there was literally zero chances that those players would suit up for Tennessee. So why bother?
Not that the transfer policy is the only thing that might complicate Dooley's pitch to recruits. Players being recruited now by Tennessee were likely no more than five years old when the Vols won their last SEC Championship. They were in middle school the last time Tennessee even went to Atlanta. Since then, Florida has been the SEC East winner twice, Georgia once and even South Carolina has gotten to the title game.
That's not to say that Dooley can't still find success in Knoxville. If Bray and Justin Hunter are both healthy in 2012 and the defense can continue its progress, the Vols should at least be able to start a new winning streak against Kentucky and make a strong play for third in the SEC East.
But that's a long way from the goals that Tennessee fans have gotten used to. And you have to wonder how long the excuses are going to last before the Volunteer faithful put Dooley on a boat -- and push it out into the sea.