Just two seasons ago it was longtime Vols head coach Phillip Fulmer who got axed after a successful tenure that included a national championship in 1998. Trouble was Tennessee's best seasons under the former Vols player were in the 1990s. A slide began this century, and UT amazingly hasn't been to a BCS bowl game since the 1999 season, a Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska on Jan. 2, 2000.
Dooley brings a losing record from Louisiana Tech, but winning at a school like that is a difficult barometer of a coach's prowess. The Bulldogs are in the Western Athletic Conference, and they branch out to play SEC and Big XVII schools from time to time. In three seasons, Dooley was 17-20.
While he won't bring a championship resume' to a school that expects one quite often, what he does bring are also important to a situation gone awry: a pedigree that begins with the name "Dooley" and character to a program that had lost some.
Kiffin and company, which included on his staff former Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron, actually had UT in a bowl game last season. But a 37-14 thumping at the hands of Virginia Tech in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl in Atlanta ended that short-lived era with a thud of major proportions.
Ole Miss crushed Tennessee 42-17 last season in Oxford. This year the Rebels meet the Volunteers in Knoxville on Nov. 13.
Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews.com, affiliated with Scout. Com, takes a closer look at the Tennessee Volunteers of 2010. Here are some of his thoughts.
Of the 17 wins Dooley came up with at Louisiana Tech, only one came against a team that finished with a winning record, and that was against a 2008 Fresno State squad that went 7-6. The one bowl win was against a Northern Illinois team that finished 6-7, and the only other halfway decent win came last year against Mississippi State in the season opener. Dooley might be a good prospect, but he'll have to quickly prove he's ready for primetime.
There's an interesting mix of talents on the 2010 team with some tremendous NFL-caliber prospects, (like ends Chris Walker and Ben Martin, tight end Luke Stocker, and receiver Gerald Jones), some very talented, very promising prospects (like on the offensive line and safety), and some screaming, potentially season-killing holes to fill (like at quarterback and defensive tackle). Kiffin did a great job of recruiting and started to generate a buzz again around the program, and Dooley, to his credit, has done a strong job of keeping most of the top prospects committed while jettisoning those who don't fit the coaching staff's style.
Kiffin had admitted that it was going to take a few years to rebuild the program and that this year was going to be a rough one; Dooley will get a grace period. Tennessee might be one of the most demanding places to coach, but no one's expecting miracles right away with all eyes on 2011.
Call this a stepping-stone season with a chance to reload, but it'll take some special things to be in the hunt for the SEC East title. Tennessee fans, at the very least you can take heart that Kiffin isn't going to have any fun in Los Angeles for a few years.
What to watch for on offense: The maturation of the line. If we can all assume that this isn't going to be an SEC championship season, and the goal is to improve to the point to where Tennessee is a real, live factor in the race on a yearly basis, then the most important aspect of this year will be the improvement on the offensive line. The starting five might be brand new, but it's a talented group that should be special by the time it's done jelling. With two freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior playing key roles, and talented depth working in the wings, the potential is there to be great up front … in time.
What to watch for on defense: The health of the linebackers. If the defensive tackles can be anything more than serviceable, the line will be strong. The secondary, despite the loss of star safety Eric Berry, will be good with several rising stars and some solid lock-down corners. The linebacking corps gets back a ton of experience and some nice prospects, but Nick Reveiz is coming off a torn ACL, as is outside speedster Savion Frazier. LaMarcus Thompson has an ankle problem, and everyone else of note is either young or still trying to figure out how to become consistent and dangerous. If everyone can stay 100%, though, this will be one of the team's surprise strengths.
The team will be far better if...the running game works. The passing game can be pedestrian and the Vols will get by, but forget about beating the better teams without pounding away. The ground game ran for 19 scores with four coming in the six losses. Six of the top seven rushing performances came in wins while running for 74 against Alabama, 99 against Ole Miss, and five against Virginia Tech (all losses). If the ground game isn't running for at least 150 yards, the Vols probably won't have a chance.
The schedule: The potential is there for complete and utter disaster for Dooley's first season. Plus: The first four games are at home. Minus: In to town comes Oregon and Florida. Plus: Two of the three games against the teams from the West are all at home. Minus: Hello Alabama and Ole Miss and the road game is at LSU. For all the tough games to deal with, if the Vols can keep their heads above water until Halloween the breaks come late finishing up at Memphis, Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Going to Georgia and South Carolina, to go along with the tough games against the West, should end any SEC title hopes without factoring in the Florida game.
Best offensive player: Senior TE Luke Stocker. At 6-6 and 253 pounds, Stocker has perfect size, prototype skills, and a good combination of hands and blocking ability. He only came up with 29 catches for 389 yards, but he averaged 13.4 yards per catch and made five scoring grabs. Two of the touchdowns came in the opener against Western Kentucky, but he still showed off the ability to be one of the best all-around tight end prospects in America. This year he'll be even more of a safety valve as well as a key blocker.
Best defensive player: Senior DE Chris Walker. A stat-sheet filler, the 6-3, 245-pound veteran not only came up with 8.5 sacks, but he also made 42 tackles and came up with two interceptions taking one for a touchdown against Ohio. He's built to be a tweener of an outside linebacker at the next level, but for now he'll be a dangerous pass rusher with the potential to do even more thanks to Ben Martin taking some attention away on the other side.
Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Matt Simms and/or Freshman QB Tyler Bray. The coaching staff can go one of two ways here. 1) Stick in Simms and hope his little bit of experience makes him a steady, mistake-free option who can get the team from Point A to Point B, or 2) put in Bray and take the lumps early while hoping the superior talent pays off a bit down the road. Either way, if the quarterback play isn't at least decent, this will be a losing season.
The season will be a success if...the Vols win eight games. It seems like an unthinkably low goal for a place like Tennessee to just get to a bowl game, but simply being better than Kentucky and finishing in the top four in the SEC East would be a plus. After winning seven games last year and five in 2008, getting to eight would be a nice step forward and a whale of a good first year for Dooley.
Key game: Oct. 30 at South Carolina. It'll take an upset for the Vols to win any of their first four SEC games playing Florida, at LSU, at Georgia, and Alabama. If they go 1-3 during that stretch, be surprised and excited. However, it'll likely be an 0-4 start before going to South Carolina. UT has won three of the last four in the series, and has to win this game to have any realistic hope of finishing in the SEC East's top three.