HOOVER, Ala. — For a man sitting squarely on the proverbial hot seat, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley was extremely cool Thursday morning.
Making his annual appearance at SEC media days, Dooley came out swinging, defending his players, program and declaring that the rest of the SEC better take notice.
"It's been a tough four years in Tennessee," Dooley, 44, said. "I know, of course, the SEC has enjoyed taking advantage of our tough times. But there's a nice mood on our team right now that you're not going to have Tennessee to kick around anymore."
The Vols have been kicked around quite a bit the past several years. Tennessee is 11-14 overall and 4-12 in the SEC, during Dooley's two-year tenure. Last year, the Vols lost to Kentucky for the first time since 1984.
But Dooley insists things are on the right track, and he gets his first chance to prove it in SEC play in the conference opener against visiting Florida on Sept. 15.
"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," said Dooley, the son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley. "The No. 1 reason for that is that 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. … Two years ago, we were going into a season with a combined three starts, and now we're going in with a combined 106. So that level of experience really gives you hope."
As Dooley defended his players, they fiercely defended him.
"I don't think he's on the hot seat, I think this team is on the hot seat," Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray said. "Us as players, we haven't gone out and executed the coaches game plans how we should have, and that's why we've been losing."
While media and fan websites debate Dooley's culpability, the Vols were in trouble before he arrived. Dooley has coached just two seasons, but the Vols are in the worst four-year run in school history. Since 2008, Tennessee is 23-27 overall and 11-21 in the SEC. At the end of 2011, seven assistants left the program — six for other jobs.
Which is part of the reason Dooley's former boss and mentor, Alabama coach Nick Saban, said the job he has done at Tennessee can't be measured in wins and losses — at least not yet.
"I think Derek Dooley has done a really good job," Saban said. "I think he inherited a very difficult situation. A lot of things, a lot of lack of continuity probably created a difficult situation in terms of quality of personnel depth. I think Derek has done a lot of things to create program stability there. … I look for them to have a much better team this year."
On Thursday, Vols players said it's not just talk about Dooley they've had to endure. They see the preseason magazines and the college football TV shows. They know not much is expected. The SEC media predicted the Vols would finish fifth out of seven in the SEC East.
"We just ignore it, but we always hear it from outside sources," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "It's not the coach being on the hot seat, it's the players not holding up their end of the bargain. Coach Dooley has nothing to do with how we actually play on the field."
Dooley said depth, experience, maturity and a chemistry he hasn't seen since his arrival after Lane Kiffin's one-season departure are all reasons he's feeling so optimistic. Whether that optimism translates into wins remains to be seen.
"I'm excited about the season, and I feel like we got a team that can go toe-to-toe for four quarters with all the teams in the league," he said. "It certainly doesn't mean we've arrived, certainly doesn't mean we're where we want to be at every position. But it's kind of like that song, 'A little less conversation and a little more action.' We have to go out and prove it, and that's what we intend to do this year."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected].