If you have spent much time talking with Tennessee fans or perusing Volunteer message boards over the last 18 months you have undoubtedly heard or read someone state that 2012 is the year that the Vols realistically have a chance at returning to some semblance of their old self. I don't really know what that means in terms of wins and losses but I certainly agree that, at least on paper, next season seems to line up pretty nicely for Derek Dooley's team. There will still be challenges but they will be more similar to the hurdles that are common to every team in the SEC.
For those of you that have read a lot of what I write here, you know I have defended Dooley. I think any judgment of his tenure at this point is premature. He wasn't going to win in 2010 or 2011 and anyone who is realistic knew it the moment he took the job. Did we all hope he would find a way to pull of an upset somewhere along the way? Sure, but to have thought that the Vols would be competing for divisional crowns these last two seasons would have been foolhardy. I don't know if Dooley will succeed, but I do know that his detractors don't know for certain that he will fail.
Derek Dooley's number one challenge at Tennessee has been depth. Those depth issues have required a tremendous amount of young players to play significant minutes in each of the last two years. In 2012 the Vols still won't be as deep as the SEC's elite teams, but they will no longer be able to use youth and inexperience as an excuse.
Here are 5 reasons I believe that 2012 may very well be the year that gets things moving back in the right direction on Rocky Top:
1. Experienced Leadership
Finally, Tennessee's best players will once again be upperclassmen. Remember when that wasn't even given much thought? Back when Tennessee fans just knew that the junior and senior classes were going to carry the team year after year. That has hardly been the case in Derek Dooley's time on The Hill. In 2012 quarterback Tyler Bray, star wide receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, key O-linemen Ju'Wuan James, James Stone, and Zach Fulton, and defensive end duo Jaques Smith and Corey Miller will all be juniors. Guys like Prentiss Waggner, Herman Lathers, and Dallas Thomas will all be seniors. In 2010 and 2011 Tennessee's best players have all been the youngsters. Now all that early playing time will finally be paying off in the way of an experienced core of talent for the 2012 season. Not since Lane Kiffin enjoyed the last bit of Phillip Fulmer recruiting with Montario Hardesty, Chris Scott, Dan Williams, and Eric Berry have they Vols really been blessed with loads of talent in the junior and senior classes. Tennessee still won't be the most talented team in the conference, but in 2012 their best players will also be their most experienced. That should pay dividends.
2. Improved Depth
Tennessee's depth still won't rival that of Alabama's or LSU's but it will be back to respectability among their SEC Eastern Division piers. What will end up being three straight top 15 recruiting classes for Derek Dooley's staff will finally stock the cupboards that have recently been so bare after the attrition of Fulmer's departure and the crumbling of Lane Kiffin's lone class. The Vols should start to see real depth improvement in many key areas, but especially in the always critical defensive front seven. It will take a full four recruiting classes plus some good fortune in terms of injuries to really get the depth back to what Tennessee fans are accustomed to, but the improved depth in 2012 will certainly allow Tennessee to be able to have a far better chance of success than they have had in '10 and '11.
3. A Better Schedule
With the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, the final conference schedule for next season has yet to be announced. Will the conference go to 9 league games or will they integrate A&M and Mizzou using a different strategy? No one knows for sure but there are a few things we do know that would lead one to believe that the Vols schedule in 2012 will be more favorable than it has been in 2011. First, both Florida and Alabama will be at home. I'm not sure that Tennessee will be in a position to beat the Tide regardless of where the game is played, but it is always nice to play your two biggest rivals at home. Second, LSU FINALLY comes off the schedule. With the horror that has ensued in the games the last two seasons, it seems like Tennessee has had to play the Tigers 10 times over the last couple of years. If the current SEC divisional scheduling rotation were to stay in place the Vols would add Mississippi State in place of LSU for 2012. I'll take that trade all day. Speaking of Western Division foes, Arkansas will once again be on the schedule next season, but instead of making the nightmare trip to Fayetteville, which is always among the toughest SEC venues in which to play, the Hogs will travel to Knoxville where they have historically struggled. That game in 2012 already has shootout written all over it. Tennessee also opens the season against NC State in Atlanta in the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game. While the Wolfpack will certainly offer the Vols a greater challenge than this year's opener against Montana, I think that is a game that could spring-board Tennessee into a strong season. A win over an opponent from a BCS league would do wonders for the team's confidence and furthermore potentially propel the Vols back into the national consciousness.
An SEC schedule is never easy. The 2012 Tennessee schedule will be anything but easy. But I believe if you take into consideration the fact that the Vols face the Gators, Tide, and Hogs at home, LSU falling off the schedule, and the opportunity for a confidence building win on September 1st, the 2012 schedule seems to line up pretty nicely for a team looking to make a splash.
4. An Established Staff
One thing often overlooked in the the madness that has been Tennessee football since November of 2008 is the impact that the constant changes have had on the continuity that is essential between coaches and their players. Much has been made about how the coaching carousel has effected the depth through attrition. There are dozens of articles about how the coaching changes have led Tennessee to become the youngest team in the SEC. But what is forgotten in all the discussion regarding personnel is just how challenging it has been from a very basic standpoint because of the frequent lack of familiarity between the coaches themselves and the coaches and their players. January 1, 2012 will be the first New Years Day that the Tennessee football program has had the same coach that they had on the previous New Years Day since January 1, 2008. While it feels to fans that Derek Dooley and his staff have been in place for quite a while now, they are still, in a lot of ways, becoming acclimated to the job at hand. Chemistry will naturally develop with play calling, with depth chart decisions, and with expectation levels from everyone involved. Because of the timeline of when Dooley was given the job, his comment this preseason about 2011 being year one because 2010 was really year zero holds a lot of truth. I expect major growth in the program from 2011 to 2012 and this coaching staff being firmly rooted and established is a big reason why.
5. Practice Competition
Another added benefit of improved depth is the increase in the competition level that will take place in practice every day for the Vols. Tennessee has continued to have a few superstars, even now in their low period. The difference between Tennessee and other great programs is that currently those superstars face underwhelming competition in practice every day. The mass exodus of the Lane Kiffin recruiting class has left the current roster in a position where guys like DeAnthony Arnett, Vincent Dallas, Justin Coleman, and Curt Maggitt are being relied upon to make plays in games. In past years, players like that, while incredibly talented, would be leaned on to help anchor the scout teams in practice and raise the level of the starting upperclassmen. Talented depth breeds competition and competition breeds improvement. For the first time in the Derek Dooley era, 2012 will see significantly improved talent in practice and therefore give the '12 version of the Vols a real shot at making some noise.
So what does all this mean? Do I think Tennessee will win 8 games next year or win the SEC East or once again be a Top 15 team? I don't know. There are tons of factors. What will the league do with the new scheduling format? How will Justin Hunter perform in returning from his knee injury? Will there be any changes on the coaching staff in the off-season? Will the players stay out of trouble off the field? The answers to these and other questions will go a long way in deciding the outcome of 2012. I do believe that with the right breaks, 2012 is setting up nicely for Derek Dooley to make some real noise in year three (wait scratch that, make it year two) of his tenure in Knoxville.