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July 19, 2012HOOVER | Rocky Top is in the midst of dark days. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? University of Tennessee coach Derek Dooley hopes so and, quite frankly, most believe his job security depends on it.
The Volunteers come in off of back-to-back losing seasons, the first time in a century (1910-11) the program suffered that feat. Certainly the third-year coach inherited a bad situation. Tennessee compiled a losing record (12-13) in the previous two seasons with Phillip Fulmer coaching the 2008 season (5-7) and Lane Kiffin going 7-6 in his only year in Knoxville. And that's not to mention the NCAA investigation.
But no matter where the blame lies, Dooley is expected to produce in 2012 or else.
"It's been a tough four years in Tennessee," Dooley said.
"I feel better today about where we are as a program than at any point since I've been in Knoxville, and I mean that. And probably the No. 1 reason for that is for the first time we have a settled roster. We have a full 85 on scholarship. We have 19 starters back, so we have a lot of experience."
If the Volunteers are able to turn it around, it will be as underdogs. UT was picked to finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference East by the media. However, exceeding expectations isn't out of the realm of possibility with a talented passing game led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray and a pair of game-breaking wide receivers in Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter.
"We haven't had the seasons Tennessee's had in the past, but we're going to try to change that," Bray said. "We have great leadership this year and a good offense and a good defense.
"Coach Dooley isn't on the hot seat. We are."
Tennessee's out-of-conference schedule isn't daunting as in years past, as the Volunteers open against North Carolina State in Atlanta and follow with home games against Georgia State, Akron and Troy.
Continuity in the program and overall experience give Dooley reason to think a turnaround can be achieved.
"I think a microcosm of what we've been through, where we were, where we are now, you look at the offensive line," Dooley said. "Two years ago when I was standing here, we were going into a season with a combined three starts, and now we're going in with a combined 106.
"You look at the quarterback position. We went in with a group that hadn't played one SEC game. Now we got a group that's played in 20. So that level of experience really gives you a lot of hope."
Reach Aaron Suttles at Aaron@TideSports.com or at 205-722-0229.