Rough road to Rocky Top

It all seemed so promising.

Derek Dooley, the young coach with the quick smile and engaging wit, came into his third season at Tennessee with all the tools in place. After a year where injuries and inexperience left the Vols licking their wounds and wondering how so much talent could lose so many games, this season began with boundless optimism.  

The receiving corps was second-to-none and they had a pocket-passing quarterback in Tyler Bray who could get the ball to them anywhere on the field.  The defense was a year older and wiser, as well as being bigger and stronger.

There was the eye-popping new athletic facility, a virtual Taj Mahal with cascading waterfalls, state-of-the-art technology, and workout areas that rival the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs.  

And there was Dooley himself, a youthful 44-year-old former wide receiver at Virginia who became a lawyer before following his legendary father into the family business of coaching. He was blessed with his mother Barbara’s outsized charm and snappy repartee, and his father Vince’s obsession with every detail of the game.  

So much promise. So much potential.

All that was left was for the Vols to win.  

Unfortunately, as the last of the leaves of November fall from the trees in Knoxville the bloom has also fallen from the Derek Dooley rose.  

The Vols are an abysmal 4-5, 0-5 in the SEC, with three of the wins coming against Akron, Georgia State, and Troy, which are not exactly resume-enhancing victories.  

The other win came in the season-opening Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic against a very mediocre N.C. State team that is now 5-4 on the year, 2-3 in the ACC.  

As if those facts aren’t uncomfortable enough, the Vols defense gave up a school-record 721 yards of total offense and 48 points to Troy last Saturday. If Bray hadn’t thrown for 530 yards of his own, breaking Peyton Manning’s single-game record, Tennessee might have lost that one.  

“Maybe I should have done this a little earlier, but I’m coming out of the offensive room and putting all my attention on defense, just sitting in and trying to help create solutions,” Dooley said after the Troy game. “We’re going to do some things differently schematically to help take some of the pressure off some of our players, to give them a better chance and also to reduce some of the space that gets created.”

This would have sounded much better in Week 2 when the Vols were 1-0 rather than in Week 10 when they face Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the final three games of the year.

Dooley’s comments also seem a little tone deaf since the Vols have given up 35.4 points and 483.1 yards per game, the worst in the SEC. The obvious response is: why haven’t you been focusing on this before now?   

This is not a place Tennessee fans expected to be. Dooley’s first year was understandable. After unceremoniously dumping Phil Fulmer, who won 10 or more games nine of his 16 seasons and nine games three of the other years, and then going through the Lane Kiffin debacle, nobody expected Dooley to right the ship in one season.   

Still, he won six games in 2010 and took the Vols to the Music City Bowl. A good recruiting class or two, and everyone thought Tennessee football would be back to its former glory in no time.

That hasn’t happened.

In fact, the trajectory has moved in the wrong direction with each successive season finishing worse than the last. Bray’s broken thumb and a crop of starting freshmen were to blame last year.

Now, the excuses have run out. And Dooley knows it.  

Three conference wins to finish the season on the winning side of the ledger would go a long way to calm the roiling waters around Knoxville.  

But this team is a long way away from winning three SEC games in a row.    

“When you’re in this position, you’re going to get criticized if you don’t get results,” Dooley said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what’s fair or right. It’s just the way it is, like Bruce Hornsby and the Range. That’s just the way it is.”

Indeed, but as many of the Tennessee faithful are now saying, that’s not the way it has to be in the future.