Head coach Derek Dooley completed his first season at Rocky Top last year with a 6-7 record and a loss in a wild Music City Bowl—a game they probably should have won if not for a technicality that’s since been corrected by what’s been dubbed the ‘Dooley Rule’. Volunteers fans have made no secret of their disdain for former coach Lane Kiffin, who left the team abruptly last offseason for his dream job at USC, where he now has somewhat of a mess on his hands.
Dooley had just one winning season, capped by an Independence Bowl win in 2008, in his three seasons at Louisiana Tech and his hiring at one of the country’s most storied programs was questioned by some. He saw an exodus of several players who were perhaps put off by the team’s third coach in as many years.
Yet after a 2-6 start, Dooley’s Vols finished with four straight wins last season to earn the six wins required for a bowl invite. He has one of the SEC’s top young passers to work with in Tyler Bray and the offensive line looks better than it did last year. Tauren Poole and Rajion Neal return to the backfield, and there’s talent at receiver such as Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. The defense is hoping that cornerback Janzen Jackson returns to help a thin secondary, but Marsalis Teague is back to occupy the other spot and Brent Brewer looked good in the spring at strong safety. Defensive end Jacques Smith is one of the team’s top young players and has tons of potential, and USC transfer Malik Jackson provides a veteran presence on the interior of the line.
It’s always tough playing in the SEC, but the Vols get somewhat of a break in missing Auburn and Mississippi State from the West, but that only means they must deal with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas, not to mention Florida, South Carolina and Georgia from their own division. I don’t care who you are, that’s a helluva schedule. Add a date with a Cincinnati team that could be better than people think, and the road to the bowl season is tough yet again.
Nevertheless, the Vols have the talent to come away with seven or eight wins in the regular season, and the bowl invite that comes with it. Dooley has put Tennessee in position to make progress as the Vols hope to find some level of their previous success. Despite the coaching turnover, Tennessee came away with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes in each of the last two seasons. Not bad for a coach who inherited a team in somewhat disarray thanks in large part to his predecessor—although it’s nothing compared to what he’s dealing with at his new program.
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