The time is now on Rocky Top.
Following the season-ending loss to Kentucky in 2011, the first in 26 years, the seat got much hotter for Derek Dooley. Is it warranted? I don't believe so, but Tennessee fans expect to win and that is something the Vols haven't done much of in recent memory.
The Volunteers were a perennial top-25 team in the late 80s and 90s but haven't been ranked since Sept.1, 2008. If one was to try and place a date on the end of the Tennessee dynasty, the SEC Championship loss to LSU in 2007 would be a good nominee.
Tennessee had their heyday in the 90s with all-time great Peyton Manning and talented receivers Carl Pickens, Peerless Price and Marcus Nash over the decade. Is this 2012 team the rebirth of the Tennessee offense of old?
The Volunteers have weapons in place. With Tyler Bray under center and the newly formed trio of Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Cordarrelle Patterson on the outside, it looks like Tennessee has an opportunity to make a splash in Dooley's third season as head coach.
Rogers is a proven All-SEC player, and before his injury, Hunter was torching defenses. The duo combined for 576 yards and six touchdowns in the three games they played together. Patterson, believed to be one of the top skill players transferring from junior college, has impressed during summer camp and brings another option to the offense.
"He's big and fast and can really make plays out there," said Hunter. "He just added another huge weapon for us."
It is doubtful that the Volunteers will turn it around in one season and go from a 5-7 team to a 10-win powerhouse. It just doesn't happen, especially in the SEC.
But this team has the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the years to come. Dooley is finally pleased with the types of athletes that are coming to the school. They fit his system and what he wants to do on both sides of the ball.
"The first phase is getting the right guys that meet our criteria and the next phase is that we develop them." Dooley said.
For the past two seasons Dooley has been repairing a program that had been neglected for the past few seasons. Recruiting fell off during the final seasons of the Fulmer era, and one-year coach Lane Kiffin recruited players that fit a criteria different from Dooley's. Some of Kiffin's best recruits left the program.
With all of that said, the Vols have been playing with only one SEC-ready player at many offensive positions for the past few seasons.
When Hunter was lost for the year against Florida, the Tennessee offense struggled. Rogers was left as the only threat on the outside, and with a near nonexistent run game the Vols could do very little.
But it's the third year in the Derek Dooley era and the coach feels good about the team's progress. The offensive line has gone from a unit with only three starts between them to one that has 106 under their belts.
The jury is still out on the running game since there is no visible evidence of improvement against an opponent, but the offensive line can attest to a change.
"We really buckled down this off-season. Looking back at last year's performance is embarrassing for our group. We've got to be better than that if we want success," said left tackle Antonio Richardson.
Tennessee needs to show marked improvement this year for a couple of reasons: Dooley's long-term future in Knoxville for one, and to bring continuously improving recruiting classes to campus.
Dooley has done well on the recruiting trail but with in-state foe Vanderbilt and their second year coach James Franklin boasting a bowl appearance this past season and a top-15 recruiting class this year, Tennessee has even more competition than usual for future talent.
With a good year, Tennessee can really start to rebuild the program of old. Patterson came to Tennessee to play with Hunter and Rogers, who he sees as top players at their positions, and if the team succeeds, more high school players will look at Tennessee the same way.
With the crop of athletes Tennessee has now they can start to bring the program back into the spotlight it use to live in. They might not reap all of the rewards, but they can put Tennessee on the path to sustained success.
"Trying to bring Tennessee back to the glory days," reads Bray's Twitter biography. The Vols have the tools to start the move, but will this Tennessee team break through and be the one that sends the Volunteers back in the right direction?
— Austin Bornheim is a senior in journalism and electronic media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @abornheim.