Weekly winners and losers. Mindless, endless, point-counterpoint discussions. People yelling at you on every channel.
With each progressive year, political debate devolves more and more into sports debate. Go [my team], boo [your team]. If we do (creative recruiting techniques, voter suppression), it's not only justifiable but necessary; if you do it, it's cheating, and it's an outrage. If my preferred [party/coach] is in charge, then anything that goes wrong is because of the mess the last guy left. If yours is in office, then you are responsible for everything from Day 1. My side is honorable and real, and your side is despicable and beneath me.
And every four years, politics even steals a large chunk of the fall spotlight, positioning a single team-versus-team battle on every network in the country, simultaneously, and for almost two-thirds of the college football season. This is something even SEC commissioner Mike Slive can't pull off. (Yet.)
But while we wait for the political animal to slither back to CNN*, Fox, MSNBC, etc., we've got a different kind of election to watch in Knoxville. Derek Dooley took office two years ago and had to immediately deal with a bit of a mess. In 2008, national title winner Phil Fulmer was impeached after increasingly sporadic returns on investment (10-win seasons in 2003, 2004 and 2007 were offset by five-win campaigns in 2005 and 2008), and in his place came the anti-Fulmer. Lane Kiffin was an out-of-towner, a young hot shot, an offensive-minded leader who was almost the complete opposite of the guy he was replacing. And a year later, Tennessee was replacing him, too.
* Okay, nobody actually watches CNN…
For two years, Dooley has steered an increasingly volatile ship, attempting (unsuccessfully) to guide his program through a series of bad bounces and devastating injuries. His team lost twice in 2010 by way of hilarious last-second ridiculousness, and his 2011 squad lost both a key receiver and the starting quarterback, then proceeded to score fewer than 13 points in six of its last eight games. His offense showed decent potential in 2010, and his defense did the same in 2011, but neither came close to doing so at the same time.
Entering Year 3, we really have no idea how good or bad Derek Dooley might be at his job. He was dealt an egregiously weird hand, but he has also made some decisions that contributed to his issues. He was, after all, the guiding hand when Tennessee faltered in chaos versus LSU and North Carolina in 2010. He has had to replace quite a few assistants (often a red flag), and despite injuries, suspensions, and so on, recruiting rankings suggest that he still has enough talent on hand to have won more than he has.
But never mind the unknown; by Election Day, we should have a pretty good idea of whether Dooley will be getting a second term or not. His Vols return a level of experience that almost guarantees them a solid improvement. But after falling to 57th in F/+ last year, and in facing eight opponents projected 53rd or better, will "solid" improvement take Tennessee far enough to keep Dooley around?
Before we get to what I said about the Vols last year, it's useful to look at a quick exchange between former SB Nation college football editor (and proud Tennessee alum) Holly Anderson and me in the same link:
Bill C.: In pure sitcom fashion, tell me how Tennessee can one-up itself in the bad luck department this fall. What can go wrong that hasn't already?
Holly Anderson: The only thing left to do that's worse is to lose to Kentucky. The psychic backlash from snapping a quarter-century win streak over Little Blue Brother would kill all alums in a four-state radius. Remember me fondly, y'all.
To cap a season that had already seen them turn a 3-1 start into a 5-6 disappointment, complete with injuries, ineptitude and blowout losses to LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, Tennessee indeed suffered a 10-7 loss to a Kentucky team starting a wideout at quarterback because of injuries.
Never mind that a win would have at least secured bowl eligibility and gotten a young, banged-up team some more practice time. That was bad enough. But they lost. To Kentucky. For the first time in well over two decades. Bad luck is one thing, but you can't lose to your "Little Blue Brother" when they don't even have a quarterback.
Now to the rest of what I said last year:
Honestly, it is hard to make any accurate projection of Tennessee's potential until we actually see all the pieces on the field at the same time. That has been difficult over the last couple of seasons. … It certainly seems as if they have decent star power all over the field; but youth, injuries and random personal issues have held them back. They are in the 90th percentile in terms of recruiting, but the talent needs to actually get, and stay, on the field. (Transfers -- including high-profile ones like Bryce Brown -- certainly haven't helped in this regard.)
As a whole, the SEC East title is very much up for grabs this year, but it would be even more interesting if Tennessee, or even Kentucky, had their houses more in order. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the Vols surprise this year, but it is hard to predict such a thing just yet; we need proof. Then again ... look at Tennessee's schedule. Five of their first six games (and, incredibly, seven of their first nine) are at home. Whether they are truly an improved team or not, they have enough winnable games early on that we could be seeing some "Is Tennessee for real??" storylines if they are sitting at 4-1 (or, technically, 5-0) when LSU comes to town on October 15. If, by then, [Herman] Lathers is healthy, [Janzen] Jackson is playing, and a couple of receiving targets have become more consistent, then they just might be for real. Again, we just need a little proof first. Until then, I'm assuming it's another 6-6 or 7-5 season while Dooley builds for 2012.
Five games into the season, linebacker Herman Lathers was very much not healthy (he missed the entire season), and safety Janzen Jackson had been kicked off the team. The defense actually improved anyway, from 62nd to 45th in Def. F/+. But on offense, supernova receiver Justin Hunter had been lost for the season in the third game, former five-star receiver Da'Rick Rogers had proven a bit flaky, and quarterback Tyler Bray had gotten hurt as well. Tennessee was 3-2, having suffered only reasonably tight losses to Florida (by 10 points in Gainesville) and Georgia (by eight at home), but the wheels were about to come off. And oh, did they. Without Hunter and Bray, the drop-off was considerable, to say the least.
Tennessee Offense, With Hunter And Bray (two games): 35.0 Adj. Points per game
Tennessee Offense, With Just Bray (five games): 28.3 Adj. Points per game
Tennessee Offense, With Neither (five games): 22.8 Adj. Points per game
The Vols scored a combined 16 points against LSU, Alabama and South Carolina (that's right, Bray disappeared just in time for Tennessee to face the No. 2, No. 1 and No. 12 defenses in the country, according to Def. F/+) and left the defense in an impossible situation.
These numbers prove two things: 1) Tennessee's offense was perilously thin if two players can make that large a difference, and 2) with Hunter and Bray both healthy, the Vols' offense could be quite explosive.
Heading into 2012, then, it is worth pointing out that, at this moment in time, both Bray and Hunter are healthy. And they are supplemented by one of the most experienced rosters in the country. I'm not saying Dooley will win re-election, but I'm saying he might give it a pretty good run. And at the very least, we might actually learn whether he is a good coach or not.
Even with no true No. 1 receiver and, for a while, no quarterback, Tennessee really, really wanted to throw the ball in 2011. A member of the Joe Tiller coaching tree, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's coaching background is based in both the spread offense and, after three years as the St. Louis Rams' offensive line coach, pro-style techniques. Tennessee's offense could best be described as pro-style, but make no mistake -- the Vols want to wing the ball around the field. And with a healthy Tyler Bray, they've got a guy to run the system.
Despite the loss of Hunter, and despite injury issues, Bray ended up with some encouraging numbers in 2011: a 60 percent completion rate, 7.3 yards per pass attempt, 17 touchdowns to six interceptions. Bray has what I will call a unique, somehow endearing personality, and he was competent enough in 2011 that, even though Matt Simms and then-freshman Justin Worley (combined: 50 percent completion rate, 5.7 yards per pass attempt, one touchdown to six interceptions) had to take over for a few games, Tennessee still finished the season ranked 10th in Passing S&P+. (Here's your reminder that S&P+ is an opponent-adjusted rating, so Tennessee was not punished heavily for getting totally shut down by a series of great defenses.)
The Bray-to-Hunter combination was just beginning to make waves when Hunter tore up his knee. Hunter caught 17 of the 20 passes thrown to him in nine quarters of action, gaining 314 yards and averaging an absurd 15.7 yards per target. He was the best receiver in the country for the first two weeks of the season, and then he was gone, leaving the reins to the receiving corps in the enigmatic hands of Da'Rick Rogers. A former five-star recruit, Rogers' numbers were perfectly fine -- 1,040 yards, 9.0 per target, 58 percent catch rate -- but his production faded after an interesting opening month. He caught 10 of 13 passes for 100 yards versus Cincinnati (while Hunter was catching 10 of 11 for 156), and he caught seven of eight for 180 against Buffalo. But against four elite October defenses (Georgia, LSU, Alabama, South Carolina), he caught 14 of 30 balls for 201 yards. He did not produce enough as a No. 1 receiver (and yes, he was dealing with musical chairs at quarterback), but with Hunter back and 100 percent, Rogers could make for a tremendous No. 2. Throw in four-star junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, and you've got maybe the best receiver trio in the SEC.
If Patterson can indeed become a legitimate third target, that could open up the middle of the field for senior tight end Mychal Rivera (344 yards, 6.5 per target, 55 percent catch rate). It could also bump Zach Rogers down a bit further on the depth chart, which might not be a bad thing; Rogers produced just 14 catches for 189 yards in 40 targets last year. But when you add in the fact that Bray gets two more four-star freshmen this fall (Jason Croom and Alton Howard) and has lovely check-down targets (running backs combined to catch 39 of 58 passes last year for 509 yards), you begin to see just how effective this passing game could become.
Again, though, Tennessee's passing game really wasn't the problem last year, even with the injuries. The biggest issue the Vols suffered came from the simple fact that they couldn't run the ball. The school of James Stewart, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Travis Stephens, and Arian Foster was entirely mediocre on the ground. The line ranked an abhorrent 111th in Adj. Line Yards, opening almost no holes for Tauren Poole, Marlin Lane, Jr., Jaron Toney and Rajion Neal. Of the top six running backs, only one (Neal, an occasional quarterback in the Wildcat formation) averaged better than 3.7 yards per carry, and Tennessee ranked 59th in Rushing S&P+. All but one of the backs return (Poole is gone), but it won't matter unless the line improves. And this might be one of those situations where "every contributor returns!" isn't necessarily a good thing. The entire two-deep returns intact, including six players who have amassed 91 career starts, but improvement is absolutely necessary. The quick passing game aided in solid pass protection (23rd in Adj. Sack Rate), but the only thing that can slow down Bray and company would be defenses that know they don't have to fear the running game.
In an election year, presidential candidates are known to change positions at times, tweaking their outlook to win a few more votes. Candidate Dooley did just that this spring; upon losing coordinator Justin Wilcox to Washington, Dooley brought in Sal Sunseri, the fourth Tennessee defensive coordinator in five seasons, who had most recently served as Nick Saban's linebackers coach at Alabama. He brought with him a 3-4 defense. Well, sort of. With personnel recruited solely for the 4-3, Sunseri will evidently be attempting a bit of a balance in 2012, and it will be most interesting to watch how he uses junior Jacques Smith. A former four-star defensive end, he has the speed and size (or lack thereof) to transition between end and outside linebacker. He recorded 7.5 tackles for loss last season.
One thing Sunseri will certainly find if he does intend to utilize a lot of three-lineman looks: size. Juniors Maurice Couch and Marlon Wells (combined: 9.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) both carry at least 285 pounds and could line up at either end or tackle. Plus, sophomore tackle Gregory Clark weighs 323 pounds, and junior college transfer Daniel McCullers (6'6", 377 pounds) is one of the most enormous players in college football. It probably goes without saying that McCullers might have some conditioning issues, but he could prove the type of immovable nose tackle most good 3-4 defenses utilize. Sunseri has options up front, but it remains to be seen whether he actually has any playmakers. Tennessee ranked a decent 40th in Adj. Line Yards but ranked just 103rd in Adj. Sack Rate. Somehow, nobody logged more than 2.5 sacks last fall. A 3-4 is known for causing confusion and, usually, getting to the quarterback; we'll see how quickly Sunseri's schemes can make a difference in that regard.
It says very good things about the Tennessee secondary that the Vols still managed a No. 49 ranking in Passing S&P+ despite the complete lack of a pass rush. The Vols did a stellar job of preventing big plays in 2011, sacrificing some efficiency in exchange, and we could see much of the same this fall. Corner Izauea Lanier (four passes broken up), UT's leading tackler at the corner position, is academically ineligible in 2012, but the Vols still return seven of the nine defensive backs who logged at least 10.0 tackles. Prentiss Waggner (two interceptions, seven passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss) moves back to corner after oscillating among positions in previous years, while fellow seniors Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon (combined: 5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, three passes broken up) bring quite a bit of aggression to the table. The safety position is a bit less proven with Waggner's move; sophomore Brian Randolph, junior Brent Brewer (nearing 100 percent after an ACL tear) and former star recruit Byron Moore are battling it out for the two starting jobs.
No matter what position Jacques Smith is technically playing, there is an interesting mix of experience and upside at linebacker. Senior Herman Lathers (4.5 tackles for loss in 2010) returns after missing 2011 with injury, and senior Willie Bohannon also makes the transition from end to linebacker. Meanwhile, four-star sophomores A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt (combined: 10.0 tackles for loss) had their moments last year. The depth probably isn't where it needs to be for a 3-4 to be successful, but if Tennessee has a bit more injury luck this year (if, if, if), that might be alright.
It is difficult to figure out what "success" means for Tennessee in 2012. In one sense, simply returning to a bowl game would mark a solid step forward in Dooley's third year, though that might not be enough to get him re-elected. But if the Vols stay semi-healthy for once, the running game does just enough to take heat off of an exciting passing game, and the defense remains competent in the face of a scheme change, then it bears mentioning that while eight opponents ranked 53rd or better, only four of those are in the top 25. There are quite a few winnable games on the docket, and I would assume that Tennessee fans expect the Vols to win some of those. In terms of what Dooley needs to do to survive, we'll set the bar at seven or eight wins.
Tennessee ranks 40th in the country in five-year F/+ performance. Fortieth! Boston College ranks 36th, Oregon State 33rd. South Florida ranks 32nd. Pittsburgh, the school from which UT once stole Johnny Majors: 27th.
The Vols have gone 23-27 over the last four years, their worst four-year record since the beginning of the Majors era (21-23-1 from 1977-80). Tennessee is not the pinnacle of the elite in college football, but the fanbase is too large, too passionate, and too aware of past successes to put up with this level of play for too much longer. The Vols stuck with Majors in the 1980s, and it eventually began to pay off (top-10 finishes in 1985, 1989 and 1990), but the consensus seems to be that Derek Dooley is not going to receive the same luxury. Whether he inherited a mess, or whether his lack of success is his own doing, his approval rating is not where he would like it to be in an election year (and in college football, every year's an election year). He needs one tremendous effort from Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Prentiss Waggner, Herman Lathers and company to earn another term in office.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: