NOTE: This is the final portion 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. Though I’ve made every effort to provide a factual and balanced look at the overall state of the football program, the nature of this series makes it necessary to speculate at times and to insert some opinions and educated guesses, especially when it comes to the future of the program.

Part 1: How did Tennessee get where it is? Who/what’s to blame?

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 near future look like?

KNOXVILLE – Any question about where the Tennessee football program is headed starts directly at the top right now. Will Derek Dooley be back next season? That’s the first issue that must be addressed.

There’s not a simple answer at this point. There’s a lot of work still to be done in 2012. Consider Georgia coach Mark Richt in 2011. Richt entered the season on the hot seat, and then lost the first two games of the season. Georgia fans were getting their coaching list ready, but the Bulldogs responded with 10 consecutive wins. That virtually eliminated any questions about his job.

The Vols aren’t likely to go undefeated the rest of this season, but there’s still time for this year to go in different directions. That’s what makes the next three weeks so important for Dooley and the future of the program. The Vols will be probably underdogs at Mississippi State, at home against Alabama and at South Carolina. Lose all three, and Dooley is in grave danger at 3-5. Win one or two, beat Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky (all games UT should be favored in), and an eight or nine-win season puts Dooley on much firmer ground.

Before making a final judgment on Dooley, it’s important to remember how he got to UT. Former AD Mike Hamilton was forced to make this decision under some extremely tough circumstances. There are three challenges he faced during the emergency search that went on after former coach Lane Kiffin bolted for Southern Califonia: 1. There was less than a month before national signing day, so finding a coach within a week or two was crucial in saving that recruiting class. 2. Tennessee fans were extremely upset at Kiffin, and there was a demand to hire somebody much different than him. 3. The timing and the overall turmoil of the program made many candidates shy away from the situation.

What if Tennessee had hired somebody else? Would it be in better shape today? It’s impossible to prove, but here’s a look at how some of the other realistic top candidates of that search have done.

. Troy Calhoun, Air Force: He has remained the head coach at the Air Force Academy, and is 18-12 since 2010.

. Mike Leach, Texas Tech: He had just been fired from Texas Tech in light of accusations of mistreatment of a player. He spent 2010-11 as an analyst before landing at Washington State this season. The Cougars are 2-3 thus far.

. David Cutcliffe, Duke: The former Ole Miss head coach and Tennessee offensive coordinator was under heavy consideration. He is 10-19 at Duke since 2010, though the Blue Devils are off to a 4-1 start this season.

. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State: He was the former offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Florida and went 5-7 in his first season at Mississippi State in 2009. He’s 20-10 since 2010.

There were others, such as former Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (who reportedly turned down an offer), Tennessee’s interim head coach, Kippy Brown, and more unrealistic choices such as former NFL head coach Jon Gruden and Boise State coach Chris Petersen.

But the reality of the situation was that Tennessee didn’t have a long list of impressive candidates to choose from. Dooley was 17-20 at Louisiana Tech in three seasons, but he did lead the Bulldogs to only their fifth bowl appearance in school history in 2008.

Dooley also had a contrasting personality to Kiffin and he had a lot of background in the SEC, having groomed as an assistant under current Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was coming off a national title in 2009.

In hindsight, it’s hard to fault Hamilton for the decision. Was Dooley the type of coach Tennessee normally should attract? Probably not. Was he about the best it could do at the time? That’s a fair assessment.

The second part of this series looked at how Dooley has stabilized the program and is continuing to bring Tennessee closer to being nationally relevant. Though that’s a positive step, it’s clearly not enough to just stop there. That leaves a tough decision for AD Dave Hart on Dooley’s future. Dooley might make the decision for him with a poor or strong finish to the season, but if he ends up at about seven wins, it could go either way.

Further complicating the decision is the potential 2013 roster. The Vols have a tremendous core of juniors who could form the base of a strong team next year. The problem is that some, if not all, of those stars could be headed for the NFL.

Here are my early estimated odds of Tennessee’s talented juniors entering the NFL Draft early:

. QB Tyler Bray – 65% (of going pro)

. WR Justin Hunter – 80%

. WR Cordarrelle Patterson – 60%

. T Ja’Wuan James – 50%

Losing three or four of those players would give the Tennessee team a much different outlook for 2013. Also consider the Vols play at Oregon, at Florida, and at Alabama in 2013. Even with an improved defense and run game, it’s hard to envision the Vols winning any of those games against potential Top-10 teams next season, especially if they lose talent to the draft. Throw in games against Georgia and South Carolina in Knoxville, and it might be hard to see tangible improvement of the record in 2013 regardless of the coach.

Recruiting is another important factor in the decision. Dooley has been a good, though not spectacular, recruiter. Part of his challenge has been recruiting while rumors fly around about his future at Tennessee. The Vols’ current class is ranked in the 20s nationally by most major recruiting services. The 2012 class had an average rank of approximately 20. Dooley has brought in some talent, but it hasn’t been on par with the programs the Vols are trying to catch in the past two seasons.

Tennessee is in a better place than it was in early 2010, but it’s not where it needs to be.

Dooley has approximately two months to show he can be the one to continue taking the Vols to the next level. Count the next three weeks as some of the most important in recent Tennessee history. They might not only decide what the 2012 season will look like, but also who will be there in 2013 and beyond.

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.