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Dr. Saturday

Kentucky welcomes Derek Dooley to the ‘embattled’ phase at Tennessee

Graham Watson
Dr. Saturday

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Kentucky 10, Tennessee 7.
When Derek Dooley was hired last year, Tennessee fans took to him. He had the charming Southern accent. He was the son of Georgia legend Vince Dooley. And best of all, he was the antithesis of Lane Kiffin.

But two years later, the new coach smell has worn off and Dooley's critics may be on the verge overtaking his supporters after the Vols' first loss to Kentucky in 26 years.

The loss was the worst in Dooley's short tenure and left the Vols without a bowl berth for the first time since 2008 when they were supposed to be on upswing under a new regime. But even Dooley admitted that he saw a potential decline on the horizon.

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"Our biggest fears were realized," Dooley said after the game. "Now we have to begin our climb up because I did believe we were going to hit a place that wasn't good. We were headed in this direction all along and just couldn't fight our way out of it."

Dooley didn't need to add any fuel to an already smoldering fire. Fans were already getting impatient after the Vols — once again — were embarrassed by the upper echelon of the SEC and needed overtime to beat Vanderbilt to get their lone conference win. It didn't help matters that Dooley was filmed celebrating that win like it was 1998 and the Vols had just won the national title.

A year ago, Dooley actually won over a lot of doubters after his team rallied from a 2-6 start to finish 6-6 and play in the Music City Bowl. It didn't even really matter that the Vols lost 30-27 in overtime to North Carolina because that team showed moxie to get its season back on track.

That was supposed to carry over to 2011 and initially, it did: The Vols started the season 2-0, which included a win over Cincinnati, still in the running for the Big East championship and an automatic BCS bid. Tennessee lost a close game to then-ranked Florida, and rebounded to beat Buffalo.

Then the wheels started to come off.{YSP:MORE}

The Vols hit a ridiculous stretch against Georgia, LSU, Alabama and South Carolina and were only mildly competitive in all four contests. They beat Middle Tennessee, only to be embarrassed by Arkansas the following weekend. During Dooley's two seasons, he's beaten Ole Miss, Vanderbilt (twice) and Kentucky, but he's 0-11 against any of the teams that make headlines in the SEC.

Tennessee has had its share of injuries, especially the loss of top receiver Justin Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray for the bulk of the season after a hot start. (Not to mention a torn ACL by the mascot, Smokey.) But even that excuse is thin considering Bray returned last week against Vanderbilt and started again today.

"It's very disappointing," Dooley said. "Something that shouldn't happen at Tennessee and hopefully it's something that won't happen again soon."

While Dooley (probably) isn't going to be fired after this debacle, it's going to be a long offseason with this loss hanging over his head. He'll probably need to notch seven or eight wins — and at least an upset or two against the top half of the conference — to keep his job. Then maybe he'll have a chance to become the coach Tennessee fans thought they were getting back in 2010.

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Graham Watson is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow her @Yahoo_Graham.

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