Wiedmer: Vols' hopes rest in win over Vanderbilt Commodores

Wiedmer: Vols' hopes rest in win over Vanderbilt Commodores

November 2nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley looks during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against the Alabama, Saturday, Oct, 22 2011 in Tuscaloosa Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

If you're a Tennessee football fan these days, you presumably vent because you care.

Some of you vent to attack second-year coach Derek Dooley now that the Vols are 0-5 in the Southeastern Conference with three league games to play. Some of you vent because you believe 21 games -- albeit 12 of them losses -- is not nearly enough time to judge a coach's worth.

Especially not when he's the third coach this year's seniors have played for in four years.

So the more cautious and realistic among you believe and write -- as one reader did Sunday:

"Us realistic fans understand that if you take away the top two offensive players and top two defensive players from ANY team, you're going to have trouble winning games. Especially when one of the players is your ONLY decent QB on the roster. Dooley will win at least nine games next season when [Tyler] Bray, [Justin] Hunter and [Herman] Lathers return and stop this negative propaganda."

On the other hand, not every member of the Big Orange Nation is so understanding and forgiving. Thus have more than a few Volniacs penned angry and frustrated notes to mirror this Sunday offering:

"So Dooley -- who is 26-32 as a college head coach is all of a sudden going to win 9 or 10 games next year? That is not realistic. After almost 60 games as a college head coach you are what your record is. Dooley will always be a .500 or worse coach. The numbers don't lie."

And that's pretty much the way the arguments have run since the first league loss of the year at Florida, though those not enamored with Dooley have multiplied in recent weeks, especially after the 37-6 loss to Alabama and last Saturday's 14 -3 defeat against South Carolina, which also was without its starting quarterback from the start of the season (Stephen Garcia) and its best overall player (Marcus Lattimore).

But do the haters have a point? Is Dooley actually rebuilding this program in a way that should both improve and sustain it through the massive changes the NCAA intends to adopt for all its major college athletic departments?

Or is he merely recycling the same mediocrity that has plagued Big Orange football for most of the past 12 seasons?

Answers come hard when the data is inconclusive. Even the staunchest Dooley supporter would have to admit that last week's decision to start true freshman quarterback Justin Worley over senior Matt Simms may have cost the Vols a winnable outing against the Gamecocks.

Moreover, for a man who preaches patience at every turn, Dooley has seemed increasingly impatient with his players. Or perhaps he's sprouting rabbit ears where the talk shows, tweets and talking heads are concerned.

Neither is in character for a man who truly believes -- as Dooley says he does -- in the process over the result.

Then again, for various reasons -- replacing Phillip Fulmer with Lane Kiffin, an unusually high number of injuries to key players, a schedule that featured LSU and Alabama last season and LSU, Arkansas and Alabama this season, a late start in recruiting in 2010, two losses that should have been wins before officiating errors took them away last year -- Dooley has yet to catch a break, except for his huge break in getting the UT job because former athletic director Mike Hamilton decided to hire a largely unproven coach to replace the similarly unproven Kiffin.

All of which brings us to the final month of this season and the realization that the most important game of the year probably becomes Vanderbilt on Nov. 19 in Knoxville.

Any Volniac could reasonably argue that when the relative success of the entire Big Orange season rides on beating Vanderbilt, the program has sunk to dangerous lows.

And that may prove true in the future. But for now, it is what it is, which means that any UT bowl hope probably hinges on edging the Commodores, who also lost to both South Carolina and Georgia but looked somewhat better in each of those defeats than the Vols.

Asked a couple of weeks ago what helped former Nick Saban assistants such as himself and Florida head coach Will Muschamp move up the coaching ladder, Dooley recalled his rigorous days as a Saban aide and replied, "Darwinism. Survival of the fittest."

In the SEC pecking order of the past 28 seasons, Tennessee has vanquished Vandy 27 times, the lone exception a 2005 defeat that cemented the Vols' first losing record since 1988.

Given all that's happened to the Big Orange program the past four seasons, it is folly to think UT should be anywhere near the fittest program in the SEC East. But if Dooley wants to avoid being eaten by the wolves this time next year, he must avoid losing to the likes of Vanderbilt this season and beyond.