NOTE: This is part two of a three-part series examining the big picture of where Tennessee’s football program stands. The Vols are on a bye week, but the remaining seven games of the season could determine the fate of coach Derek Dooley and the future direction of the program.
Part 2: Where does Tennessee currently stand as a program? How far away is it from national significance?
Part 3: Where are the Vols headed? What could the next few years look like?
KNOXVILLE – Be sure to catch up on the first part of this series if you missed it. It took a look at how Tennessee went from a national contender to closer to the bottom of the SEC in about a decade.
To recap quickly: Coaching change, player attrition and issues in recruiting are some of the main reasons for the drop.
We left off with Tennessee hitting a low point at the end of the 2011 season – a 10-7 loss at Kentucky. Some might argue that it went even lower over the winter. Assistant coaches began leaving the program at an alarming rate. The two most notable departures were defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, both thought to be emerging stars in the coaching profession.
In total, seven assistants left, leaving only Dooley, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw from the 2011 staff.
The Vols hired some strong replacements, but there was an unspoken message sent by those who voluntarily left. They all took lateral positions at schools with either equal or lesser tradition than Tennessee. It seemed that they were looking for job security – something they might not have thought they had at Tennessee going forward. Dooley shrugged it off, citing other reasons, such as the coaches wanting to be closer to home, for their departures.
The most notable replacement was Sal Sunseri, the new defensive coordinator brought in to replace Wilcox. He was the linebackers coach and associate head coach at Alabama, fresh off a dominating defensive performance in the National Championship game against LSU. He brought a variation of the 3-4 defense with him, and the Vols signed 6-foot-7, 360-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers out of junior college to help anchor the new look.
The defense was a question mark heading into the season, but the offense had seemingly unlimited potential. Wide receiver Justin Hunter came back from missing 2011 with a torn ACL, Da’Rick Rogers was the leading returning SEC receiver from 2011 and five-star junior college prospect Cordarrelle Patterson was signed in the 2012 class.
Adversity hit again when Rogers was suspended indefinitely and then left the program for Tennessee Tech after during fall camp. Rogers later admitted that failed drug tests led to his departure.
That brings us to the current season. Five games are in the books with three wins and two losses on the record. An impressive win over NC State, a blowout over Georgia State and a shaky win against Akron are the three wins. A second-half collapse against Florida at home was a huge disappointment, but a 51-44 loss at Georgia showed some promise last Saturday.
All that brings us to this question: How close are the Vols to being nationally relevant? And by that, I mean a team that can win nine or 10 games, go to a respectable bowl game and perhaps sneak into the championship picture with a break here and there.
They’re not too far from that point is the simple answer, but there are still a few areas that must be improved. They’re extremely close on offense. Missing Rogers hurts this team, but tight end Mychal Rivera, running back Rajion Neal and receiver Zach Rogers have stepped up enough to keep defenses honest.
Defense and special teams is what is holding them back right now. And that’s to be expected to some extent. Historically, the transition from a base 4-3 defense to a base 3-4 has taken at least two years to show benefits in the SEC. That was the case at Alabama under Saban and at Georgia under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Additionally, safety Brian Randolph, the quarterback of the secondary, was lost for the season in Week 3 with a torn ACL, and projected starting cornerback Izauea Lanier was lost for the season for academic issues.
The kicking game is well below SEC standards. The coaches don’t feel good with any field-goal attempt of more than 40 yards and extra points haven’t even been a given this season.
The progression of the run game in the last few weeks is an encouraging sign for this team. Other than a few spurts in 2010, Dooley’s teams at Tennessee have been unable to run the ball because of having an inexperienced line and mediocre running backs. Current starter Rajion Neal isn’t likely to rise to SEC elite status, but he’s improving, and the offensive line has progressed immensely since 2011.
The overall rise of the SEC can’t be ignored when looking at where Tennessee stands. It’s not that there weren’t good SEC teams when the Vols were better in the '90s and early 2000s, but the overall depth of the league isn’t what it is now. The Vols could now easily post a 9-3 record and have three losses to Top-10, national-contender, type teams.
For example, they might have four preseason 2013 Top-10 teams on their schedule next year: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. That doesn’t even include their out-of-conference trip to Oregon, a possible Top-5 program.
The increase in prominence of the conference has positive and negative meaning for Tennessee. The weekly competition continues to get tougher, but a game like last Saturday’s loss at Georgia, though disappointing for the team, shows that the talent level isn’t that far below the national elites.
The most encouraging sign of the Georgia loss was the team’s mental toughness and overall effort. Some of the Vols’ shortcomings were there for the world to see. They’re not a great tackling team, the speed in the secondary is lacking and they can’t make kicks. But they showed a level of confidence and maturity that wasn’t seen in the Week 3 loss to Florida, nor in any of the big games in 2011.
Will those intangible qualities help them finish off this season with some unexpected wins? It’s too early to know that, but Tennessee is getting closer to returning to where it used to be from an overall talent perspective. The question will now be if it can take the next step, and if the progress shown will be enough for Tennessee to continue on its current path.
Part three will look at what the near future could hold for the Vols. What does Dooley need to do to keep his job? Was he the right hire in the first place? Where would Tennessee be right now had it gone a different route? What about the team ... who will be back next season and how has all of the turmoil affected recruiting? Check back this weekend for thoughts on those questions.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.