Dooley's seat hot despite many challenges

Things are clearly heating up in Knoxville, Tenn., and it's not a good thing.

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley's name has almost become synonymous with the phrase "hot seat" this year. On Monday, CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd released his hot-seat rankings for 2012 and Dooley was one of just two coaches (the other being Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith) given a rating of 5.0 with a "Hot seat! Win or be fired" label.

There's no question that 2012 is a crucial year for Dooley, but while he has an unsatisfactory 11-14 record in his two years as the Vols' coach and is coming off a year that ended with Tennessee's first lost to Kentucky since 1984 instead of a bowl berth, he wasn't exactly dealt much of a hand when he arrived in 2010.

Tennessee's program had plenty of cracks in it. Longtime coach Phillip Fulmer was fired, showing just how far Tennessee's football program had fallen, and Lane Kiffin left Tennessee with NCAA clouds hanging over it and a paper tiger recruiting class that Kiffin heralded as a true gem.

(That class left Tennessee with more headaches than wins.)

Dooley dealt with issues he could barely control, but still sent the Vols to a bowl game in his first season. During this year's SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., Dooley expressed his feelings about the short-handed roster he had during his first year.

"I knew there were some challenges internally," Dooley told reporters last month. "I knew there were challenges with our culture. But probably the one thing that surprised me the most was the state of our roster. When we were in my first spring practice, I knew that this was going to be a much tougher road to plow than what I expected when I got here. Because I think I was probably no different than most typical fans who see the Power T and you expect a pretty deep and talented roster. And we didn't have that.

"Certainly the attrition had a big impact on it because of the changes. I knew that it was not something we could solve right away."

And Tennessee didn't. There were growing pains expected in 2011 with a young defense returning, but there was hope with offensive playmakers Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter returning. Unfortunately for the Vols, injuries to Bray and Hunter stunted Tennessee's growth. Add an inconsistent offensive line and a nonexistent running game and Tennessee limped through 2011.

Dooley then had to replace seven assistant coaches before the spring, leaving even more questions about his job security. It's as if Dooley just can't catch a break. He returns nearly 20 starters in 2012, but loses seven assistants.

But those challenges haven’t prevented his name from appearing at the top of the college football hot-seat boards. Dooley could have done a lot more complaining about his situation but he didn't.

The problem Dooley finds himself in is that in this profession -- and especially in this league -- it's all about what you've done lately, and Dooley hasn't done a lot in the wins department. This year, that could change. Though there will be some adjustments made with players and new coaches, especially on defense with new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri looking to run out of a 3-4 base, this is Dooley's best team. The offense might have one of the best passing games in the league, and the running game should benefit from what is expected to be an improved offensive line.

The schedule is also more favorable with Florida and Alabama at home and no LSU or Arkansas. The Vols could actually win eight games without beating Florida, Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina. That's good news, but it could also dump even more pressure on Dooley. Eight wins almost becomes a must for Dooley.

So if Dooley fails to reach the eight-win mark for the third consecutive year, will that be his undoing? It's hard to say what new athletic director Dave Hart will do in that situation. He's been adamant that he wants to see improvement, but won't put a number on wins Dooley needs.

But does he want to be the new guy who dismisses a coach who appears to finally have the numbers and talent needed to get Tennessee going again?

There's no question that Tennessee has to make strides in the right direction this fall. Whether its winning eight or more games, making a bowl or just being more competitive, the Vols have to be better than last year. Anything less could have Dooley out of a job, which is a sad reality in a league as competitive as the SEC.