Derek Dooley is headed into his third year as coach of the Vols on the proverbial "hot seat" according to some. After posting a 6-7 record (which could have been 8-5 easily) with the team he inherited his inaugural year, he is now coming off of an awful 5-7 season capped by a loss to Kentucky and including one SEC win against Vanderbilt in overtime.
Has Tennessee faced adversity under Dooley? You would have to have been paying no attention to think otherwise, and probably no other coach in the country was put in a more difficult position with more pressure than was Dooley. But Tennessee fans are used to winning.
Sure we caught a bad break here and there and there were some forgettable moments towards the end of Phillip Fulmer's coaching tenure, but some forget we were in the SEC Championship game the year prior to his ousting. Yes, we expect a lot. We expect to compete against every team we play.
Some Vol fans have pointed to the roster Dooley inherited which was made up of a mismatched group of walk-ons and freshmen with few talented, experienced players especially at critical positions such as offensive and defensive line and the skill positions, and with good reason.
Those same people will point to the injuries at key positions last year as an excuse for losing to Kentucky. I hear these Vol fans and I notice something a little different headed into the 2012 season. It appears that the apologists are fewer and quieter. The time for excuses appears to be over.
Tyler Bray is a seasoned quarterback who many project as a top 10 draft pick following the season should he decide to come out.
All those youngsters who started on the offensive line as Freshmen are now Juniors save for an exceptional sophomore tackle who will likely make a lot of money in the NFL one day and a talented senior guard who has been battle-tested and impossible to take off the field.
A running game which was dead last in the SEC last season figures to be much improved with the addition of a dedicated running back coach and an off-season focused on improving the rushing attack.
Yes, we lost an all-conference wide receiver right before the season opener, but we return a healthy Justin Hunter and gain another wide receiver who figures to be at least as good as he was. If we can stay healthy at the position, they are easily still one of the best pass-catching tandems in the SEC.
We were lousy on defense last year so we went out and we targeted a coach who specializes in a more aggressive 3-4 technique that better fits our personnel especially when you add in the mammoth nose tackle who is a new addition to the team and figures to make it really tough to move our line off the ball this year.
We are tougher on defense.
We have SEC talent at linebacker who have been through the hurdles and garnered much praise including a pair of sophomores who will be busting heads.
We have a much better secondary than people give us credit for. The guys who are starting all won their job over other very talented players. They fit our system finally and they are no longer freshmen prone to making errors allowing for big plays in the passing game.
This is as complete a team as I have seen at Tennessee since the late 90's and there is no reason they cannot go out and compete against every team they play. Winning more than losing is no longer good enough. Expectations should be higher. There are no excuses anymore. This team is built to win.
Our first test will be Friday night. I hope the Wolfpack is ready.