Still, Tennessee made dramatic strides between September 4 and Dec. 30. In fact, the Vols could've been 8-5 overall and 4-4 in league action if not for fluke finishes in Game 5 at LSU and in the Music City Bowl vs. North Carolina. As a result, Tennessee's players are convinced that their head man has the Big Orange Express on the right track.
"I have all my trust in Coach Dooley," senior tight end Luke Stocker said. "I think he's got a great future in this program. I think Tennessee's definitely on the upswing."
Despite the pending departures of Stocker, plus senior wideouts Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore, Tennessee's offense could be significantly better in 2011 than it was in 2010. That's because the Vols will return some fabulous freshmen.
These include starting quarterback Tyler Bray, key receivers Justin Hunter and Da' Rick Rogers, starting fullback Channing Fugate, along with four offensive linemen who started at least five games each - JaWuan James, Zach Fulton, James Stone and JerQuari Schofield. Also back will be a 1,000-yard rusher in junior Tauren Poole, a 13-game starter at left tackle in sophomore Dallas Thomas and a proven tight end in sophomore Mychal Rivera. Poole's backup, freshman Rajion Neal, shows promise, too.
"I think next year's offense has an opportunity to be extremely explosive," Stocker said. "If they continue to build on the things they've done this year, let some of those guys fill bigger roles in the offense, they have a really bright future ahead of them."
Dooley conceded following the Music City Bowl that several of Tennessee's offensive freshmen have a chance to be special.
"Both freshman wideouts made some great catches," the head man said. "Rajion Neal showed some spunk, and it was tough plowing (in the run game)."
The key figure, of course, is Bray, who passed for more yards (1,495) and more touchdowns (16) than Peyton Manning did as a Vol freshman in 1994. Bray threw for 312 yards and four TDs in the Music City Bowl but also tossed three interceptions.
"He made some mistakes but he's human, he's a young guy," Gerald Jones said. "I don't know why everybody goes straight to the mistakes. He's still a freshman, even though he doesn't play like a freshman all the time.
"I'm proud of him, and I appreciate him for saving our season as a team and as a senior group. And I wish him the dearest in the future."
Tennessee's seniors also see a bright future for Dooley, who provided stability and direction after inheriting a team in disarray when Lane Kiffin bolted for USC last January.
"We have a lot of trust in him, and I think he has a lot of trust in us," Stocker said of Dooley. "It's one of those things that develops over time. It wasn't something where he walked in the door and we're like, 'Boom! We trust you to because you're our new coach.'
"Obviously, in the past we learned differently."