NORTH CAROLINA STATE (in Atlanta)
THE REALITY WAS SINKING IN FOR DEREK DOOLEY LAST NOVEMBER as he left the field at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky. Dooley's Tennessee team had just lost to Kentucky 10--7. The first defeat to the Wildcats in 26 years had cemented the Volunteers' second straight losing season and nixed its shot at bowl eligibility. This was a calamitous occurrence for Vols fans, and worse, Dooley felt "embarrassed" by the team's seeming lack of effort. "That's what sticks," the third-year coach says. "It's not losing to Kentucky, it's how we played, how we represented Tennessee."
The loss was accompanied by reports of culture problems within the locker room, and Dooley saw the need for a new beginning for his Vols, who finished the season with only one SEC victory—in overtime against Vanderbilt. During a slate-cleaning off-season, Tennessee replaced seven coaches. The new staff includes, most notably, former Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator.
"I kind of view it as a correction, like a lot of companies go through," says Dooley. "It's been a healing process for our players, too. It has allowed us to put the past in the past and start fresh."
This fall's team might be Dooley's deepest since he came to Knoxville in 2010 as the Vols' third coach in as many seasons. The cast of returnees includes QB Tyler Bray, who threw 14 TDs in four games last year before going down with a broken thumb. Bray's primary targets, receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, headline a talented group of wideouts. The wild card? Tennessee's rushing attack was highly ineffective and Dooley is hoping a solution emerges from among several backs.
Dooley has criticized his defense for failing to make game-changing plays, and Sunseri has installed a 3--4 scheme to emphasize a more aggressive style. Tennessee's strength is at linebacker, where senior Herman Lathers returns from injury to join standout sophomores Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, both of whom started as true freshmen.
Dooley prefers to look forward, but that afternoon in Lexington hasn't been forgotten by the man seeking his school's return to the SEC's elite. "We made some changes," Dooley says. "We began a track to polish our program. As hard as that loss was, it'll play dividends in the future."
COACH Derek Dooley (3rd year) 11--14 (4--12 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Jim Chaney