Tennessee is finished prepping for the 2012 football season, and Friday night lights could illuminate the prospects of third-year coach Derek Dooley getting a fourth year.
Many believe it’s a do-or-die season for Dooley, and some of the seven assistant coaches who had to be replaced in the offseason apparently weren’t eager to bet on the former. On the front end, there probably isn’t a precise win-loss threshold that would seal his fate, but a couple of quality wins are likely to have to be included on a schedule littered with gimmes.
North Carolina State, the team Tennessee will open against tonight at 7:30 in the Georgia Dome (ESPNU), qualifies as quality.
Veteran coach Tom O’Brien has an experienced quarterback in 6-foot-6 Mike Glennon and a veteran offensive line returning from an 8-5 team, and a solid defensive line and secondary should help bring a along a relatively young linebacking corps.
Tennessee has many of the same attributes, and looks better on paper at linebacker and receiver, too. The Volunteers, a three-point favorite, will be favored to start the season 4-0 if they get past the Wolfpack. Hosting a young Florida team with no clear-cut quarterback at this point would be the other hurdle.
A UT team coming off its first loss to Kentucky since 1984 and last week’s loss of Da’Rick Rogers would be served well by the momentum of a win tonight. But Dooley seems more concerned about playing well for three months this season than three hours tonight.
“I’ve been in it long enough to say one game never dictates the outcome of a season,” Dooley said Tuesday, “because we were saying the same thing last year going into the Cincinnati game.”
The Vols routed the Bearcats, 45-23, to improve to 2-0, but went 3-7 from there. Cincinnati went on to win 10 games and finished tied for first in the Big East.
“(We) probably played our best football since we’ve been here and stroked ’em,” Dooley said. “And then we went on and had a real disappointing finish in our season.”
The 63-year-old O’Brien, a former Marine, knows how you finish is more critical than your start. O’Brien’s head was being called for last year when the Wolfpack started 2-3. The wins were against South Alabama and Liberty, and among the losses was a 44-14 Thursday night trouncing from Cincinnati – 12 days after the Bearcats were beaten handily by the Vols.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson, who O’Brien had essentially ushered out at NC State due to his two-sport status, was well into a Heisman-like season with the Badgers. But the Wolfpack won six of its last eight, including a 37-13 win against Clemson and a bowl victory against Louisville in which Glennon, who was hearing “Russell Wilson” as much as O’Brien was three months earlier, completed a 3,054-yard, 31-TD season with Belk Bowl MVP honors.
“It’s one game (tonight),” Dooley said. “It’s an important game. It’s a great opponent. But at the end of the day, every team gets measured on their body of work over 12 weeks.”
Not exactly “win one for the Gipper.” Then again, it’s a season when the Gipper might need to win eight.
That would improve his Tennessee record to 19-19, which wouldn’t be half bad when considering what he inherited and when he inherited it.
“We feel like we’re bigger, stronger, more talented than we’ve been the last two years,” Dooley said. “But whether we’re ready to go out there and beat a team like N.C. State and compete for the SEC East, uh, only time will tell.”
Mixed signals: Dooley said he likes the mindset of talented 6-foot-6 junior quarterback Tyler Bray, who hasn’t always endeared himself to coaches and fans with his work ethic and off-the-field shenanigans.
“He’s been outstanding all camp,” Dooley said. “I think his maturity, as it relates to football, has been great. (He has) a better command of the offense. I think he’s got a lot of confidence and (he is) affecting the other guys on the team in a positive way when they’re out on the field, and I’m hoping that spills over into the game.”
Losing Rogers gives Bray less options, but he has athletic weapons in 6-foot-4 Justin Hunter and 6-foot-3 junior-college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, and experienced targets in tight end Mychal Rivera and senior receiver Zach Rogers.
TGIF: A Friday night game wasn’t well received by a lot of people around the state, particularly those involved with high school football. According to CoachT.com, 41 high school games involving Tennessee teams were moved to Thursday.
“I know our leadership – it’s not something that we want to do, because we support the high schools so much and we don’t want to ever try to take away from their support,” Dooley said. “So I think it’s a one-time deal. Probably, you know, the circumstances with the holiday weekend contributed to it, and hopefully, once this passes we won’t have this scenario again.”
Tennessee and NC State is the first game in a Chick-fil-A kickoff doubleheader. Clemson and Auburn play Saturday. Former Science Hill defensive back Wes Forbush was recently put on scholarship at Clemson.
It’s clear which conference has something to prove in the ACC-SEC doubleheader.
“Certainly it’s not lost on me as a coach in the ACC that we have to start winning games like this,” said O’Brien, well aware of the SEC’s current streak of six BCS titles. “Winning all those national championships adds validity to their argument (of SEC supremacy).”
Ground up: Tennessee’s running game finished 116th nationally last season. UT’s veteran offensive linemen – subsequently working under new assistant coach Sam Pittman – had a businesslike look in their eyes during the week of training at Milligan College and Science Hill earlier this month.
Junior Running back Rajion Neal , who had 27 carries for 134 yards and two TDs in 2011,stressed how the tough times Tennessee’s upperclassmen have experienced the past two years have generated unprecedented maturity and leadership under Dooley.
The Wolfpack defensive line should be a good test. O’Brien likes his talent and depth up front on defense after an injury-marred 2011.
Trying to game-plan how to run against Tennessee required NC State to watch a lot of film from Alabama’s 2011 team, as former Crimson Tide assistant Sal Sunseri has installed a 3-4 base.