published Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Greeson: Facing it is tough: Vols bottom-tier

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    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 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

This is not fun. Or easy. Or going away soon.

After the inexplicable loss to Kentucky -- a struggling team that put a wideout at quarterback and ran the same five to seven plays for three hours -- left the Tennessee Volunteers at 5-7 for 2011. You know this.

That means no bowl game. That means back-to-back losing seasons, something that has not happened in a hundred years of UT football. That means a winning streak over the Wildcats that had survived since the Reagan administration is over.

After Saturday, the knowns and the unknowns of the status of the Vols program are far-reaching.

  • The Vols are a bottom-tier SEC program. They were super-pumped to beat Vanderbilt and then lost to Kentucky. That's not Ole Miss bad, but it's bottom tier. The backslide has taken on a secret level of despair once you realize that what used to be viewed as an expectation -- beating Vandy or UK or even getting to a bowl -- is now viewed as an accomplishment.
  • The Vols are not even the best of the bottom tier, regardless of whether you stack the SEC in halves or thirds. In halves it would be (in order) LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and then Florida, Mississippi State, Vandy, Kentucky, UT, Ole Miss. In thirds, it's LSU, Bama, Arkansas and Georgia at the big boy table; Auburn, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi State in the next group; followed by Vandy, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ole Miss.

That last group has one team that is bowl-eligible and one team that won Saturday with a wideout at quarterback. Neither is Tennessee.

  • While the talent will be a year more experienced and the roster deeper next fall, how much better is it going to be? Is eight wins possible? Sure, but that seems to be the ceiling, and how far have UT's expectations plummeted if eight wins is the perceived high-water mark (and, remember, 2012 is the season that this program has been building toward for the last three years).
  • What is to be made of Tyler Bray? Is he a legitimate big-time quarterback? Is he a talented head case? Is he some of both? The facts show a guy who had a lot of success throwing the football to two future NFL receivers (Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter) against less-than-NFL-caliber opponents in the first month of the season before getting hurt.

The facts show that Bray as the starter is 4-3 against SEC opponents (wins last year against Ole Miss, Vandy and Kentucky and a 2011 win against Vandy). The facts also show a guy who was less than good Saturday and led an offense that managed one touchdown against a Kentucky team that allowed 38 points to Vandy and 14 to Jacksonville State.

Was Bray's thumb to blame for his horrid showing against Kentucky? That's a very plausible theory, but how would you finish this sentence, "You know Tyler Bray's a good quarterback because he beat _"? (If Cincinnati's your answer, well, OK, but that's not overly inspiring.)

  • Heading into a crucial recruiting season, the questions are too numerous to name -- from Derek Dooley's long-term job security to serious concerns about halftime adjustments to claims that players didn't want to be on the field to who will remain on UT's staff to what happened to the bevy of NFL-caliber linemen who used to be a UT staple. There's one looming issue, though, that will be tough to face for Johnny Vols Fans everywhere: Which SEC program has the least amount of momentum and buzz right now?

LSU and Bama are the class of college football. Arkansas and South Carolina are at their peaks as SEC members. Auburn won the BCS in 2010, and Georgia will be fully stocked as the East favorite next fall and could be positioned for a possible run to bigger things. Florida's struggles with a first-year coach and a defense loaded with sophomores at least offer some optimistic angles. Vandy is working on an extension for first-year coach James Franklin, who just guided the Commodores to their fifth bowl game in program history.

That leaves UT, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Mississippi State in the bottom of the buzz barrel. Mississippi State took a step back in 2011, but that was after finishing 15th in the country in 2010. Ole Miss is in limbo, but the right coaching hire could create a lot of talk around the Rebels. That leaves UT and UK, and, well, Saturday sealed that, didn't it?

Certainly blocking and tackling are far more important concerns than buzzing and trending for a college football coach -- especially one with as many problems to fix as Dooley has.

But Dooley is certainly smart enough to know that there are two ways for college programs to attract attention and buzz -- winning or changing the regime.

And when the former doesn't happen, the latter almost always does.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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jeffy01 said...

no question that LSU, Bama and Ark are in a class above rest....but South Carolina in the second third?! Really? 10-2 this year, First in the East last year, second this year....sounds like first third. Miss St in the second third?! That makes no sense.

November 29, 2011 at 9:26 a.m.
Facts said...

Loving Kiffin's stellar recruits showing their stuff right now. He was the beginning of the end to UT's opportunities. Dooley's had no hand in the players on the field at this point. Beginning next year, it's his team.

November 29, 2011 at 11:08 a.m.
rosebud said...

Will be interesting to see how Dooley fares with another kitty-cat schedule in 2012. No LSU next year, and they get to play Akron, Georgia State, Troy, Vandy and Kentucky (whose star QB, the wideout will have graduated). Everyone believed Tenn. would win 6 this year just by showing up, but they didn't show up for KY. If Dooley can't win 7 next year, he should coach middle school ball.

November 29, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.

A bit near-sighted, huh Jay? The Vols are NOT a bottom-tier program. But they are a bottom-tier team which is where they belong for now.

The ranking of programs is entirely different than the ranking of teams. I have to laugh out loud when you rank a program with one or two wins above the .500 mark (total Ws/Ls) as a top-tier program and then tell us that Florida and Tennessee are in the bottom.

Silly stuff.

November 29, 2011 at 11:39 a.m.
memphisexile said...

BTG I think Jay is right. A bad team has a bad year or two. For example, Florida is a bad team, but they are only 3 years removed from a National Title and played for an SEC title 2 years ago. Tennessee in the last 5 years is 31-31. If you take away the 10 win season from five years ago they are 21-27. They have had losing seasons 3 of the last 4 years, and the one year they did win it was at 7-6. UT paid N.C. to get out of their only non-cupcake out of conference game and still could not muster 6 wins. They lost to Kentucky. They made a big deal out of beating Vandy. When the goal of the UT program is a bottom tier bowl and they celebrate beating bottom tier teams, they are in fact bottom tier. This is not just a bad team, this currently a bad program.

The bad news is that next year Florida will be better. Georgia will be better. S.C. will be better. Vandy will be better. Heck, even Kentucky will probably be bettter. Where does this leave UT? My guess would be hiring another coach.

November 29, 2011 at 1:15 p.m.
mrredskin said...

UGAy as an elite = HA!

the same team that had all of its fans ready to overthrow their supreme overlord, richt, in mid-september

November 29, 2011 at 1:18 p.m.
Astropig said...

"next year, and they get to play Akron, Georgia State, Troy, Vandy and Kentucky"

Uh, Rosebud, I wouldn't count on those all being wins at this point. Troy plays up pretty well under Larry Blakeney (this year is sort of an anomaly) and Vanderbilt gets the vols in Nashville next year. James Franklin looks like he can get more out of that team than the sum of its parts so the Vols had better take them seriously.

Georgia State is a certain win. Akron ditto. The Vols get KY in Knoxville and it's hard to see the Cats even showing up, much less winning two in a row, so that looks pretty certain.

Of course,lots of wheels are always turning during the CFB offseason,so a sure win (or loss) today may not happen on the field where it counts next fall.

November 29, 2011 at 1:30 p.m.

Hey "FACTS" Dooley while coaching his second season is now in his 3rd at recruiting. He came in and recruited right after Kiffin left, so yes some of the players mostly freshman and sophomores are his recruits. With that being said those same players looked better last year than this year and you can't put that on anyone other than Doo-Little and his staff. If no change happens get used to being the laughing stock of the SEC.

November 29, 2011 at 1:46 p.m.
Livn4life said...

Well first off if the Vols had not had their best offensive weapons snatched away so quickly, they would have been a lot better the whole season. That's a FACT not an excuse. The defense showed signs of being better even though it began with a lot of new faces and without the most experienced and overall best player who messed up. The Kats were hungry for that victory and it was going to happen. So now we go all off on the head coach and the program at large for being in a funk? I could not disagree more with that perspective. What we have to do is live into next year and see what happens. Three straight as it has been the last two and yes it's time to change. But good grief, to act as if two bad years means you will never be competitive again, is beyond outrageous. Besides, who will replace Dooley if 2012 does not work out? Jay, I'm waiting to see who your expert choice/pick would be as a Dooley successor.

November 29, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.
jharvey1984 said...

Don't get me wrong, I love DD and think he deserves at least 2 more seasons before he gets the boot; but I do secretly wish Peyton would just retire on top and come back home to coach at UT.

November 29, 2011 at 2:23 p.m.
MCNorthern said...

Dooley was hired in a hurry when Lane Kiffin scurried off to Southern Cal and it's obvious that former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton was simply looking for the anti-Kiffin. Dooley was 17-20 at Louisiana Tech when he was hired. His record at Tennessee is now 11-14 overall and 4-12 in SEC play. Can you think of any other SEC team that would have hired a 17-20 coach from the Western Athletic Conference? Look at the smart hires in the nation's pre-eminent conference. Steve Spurrier to South Carolina. Les Miles to Louisiana State. Nick Saban to Alabama. Big-time coaches. Tennessee has never been willing to pay the price for a big-time coach.

November 29, 2011 at 2:36 p.m.
rosebud said...

So Tennessee's bottom-tier school in the standings, and on the field. Mr. Greeson, your next story should be: where does UTK stand in terms of facilities, stadium, and spending? And if you give the correct answer (top tier), how does that match up with their results? And why?

November 29, 2011 at 3:25 p.m.
riverman said...

The fact is our program has been going downhill for 10 years now since the loss to LSU in the 2001 SECCG. Fulmers last 3 recruiting classes were horrible and Kiffin's one was just as bad. We had the least talented junior and senior class this year I have seen since at least 1958(the year we lost to Chattanooga)

Both Vandy and Kentucky started 8 or 9 seniors while we started 4 and only one of those, Malik Jackson, is an SEC type player. Watch the NFL draft in the spring, Jackson will be our only player drafted and he won't be in the top 150 players taken. And unfortunately next years senior class(Kiffins) is just as bad.

You cant rebuild in 2 or 3 years a program that has been on the decline for a decade.

November 29, 2011 at 5:18 p.m.
FredFlintstone said...

Chill out! Dooley inherited the Kiffin mess; Credit him for taking over that mess, and putting together a competitive scheme for the 2011 campaign (Alabama, LSU for 3qtrs) with a bunch of youngsters (save Arkansas meltdown!).

Bray is a head case; too weak & frail for prime time (gets bumped, and breaks a thumb?). Worst of all with Bray, he's not a leader. This team needs field leadership. Watch the sidelines; Bray's clowning around, even with coaches, while the team's struggling! Not a leader and not an SEC QB. WAC, maybe, not SEC!

November 29, 2011 at 7:26 p.m.
signalmtnman said...

Kind of a narrow look at the SEC and UT in my opinion based on this year's strength of schedule. UT played basically the top three teams in the country in a 5-week span, shoulda, coulda, woulda beat USC and then basically came up one loss short of predictions. Granted the loss to UK was a big one, but I'm more concerned about effort and focus than anything else from that. UGA skated through the West against the bottom dredges and only after Saturday will it be very clear if they truly belong in the top tier. USC is only slightly less shaky than normal and Jeffrey will not be back and Florida is a long way from that last national title. I think there is room in the East for any of the teams to be on top next season and again the secret will be avoiding the beasts of the West. Dooley is doing things right given the persistent problems the program has experienced back into the Fulmer days. Hopefully it will translate into winning sooner than later.

November 29, 2011 at 9:47 p.m.
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