It seems weird to hope that Butch Jones can replicate anything Derek Dooley did at Tennessee.
Dooley, who had a 15-21 record in three seasons in Knoxville, didn’t exactly inspire confidence on or off the field. On it, his teams won just one of his final 15 SEC games, losing to Kentucky and Vanderbilt along the way. Off it, he left the cupboard bare for his predecessor — Jones.
But there’s one thing Dooley’s Vols did that UT fans can hope Jones’ Team 121 can do: they went to Atlanta and whipped tail in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
Dooley never lost in Atlanta, a city that has been highly unkind to the University of Tennessee Athletics Department in this modern era.
Before a crowd of 55,521 on a 2012 Friday night in the Georgia Dome, Cordarrelle Patterson had a coming out party as Dooley and the Vols crushed NC State. The scoreboard said 35-21. The game wasn’t really that close.
Atlanta is a city that has been largely unkind to Tennessee in recent years, a fact that escaped no one as the 2012 season opener arrived in what was seen as a pivotal Year Three for Dooley and his staff. Tennessee had lost to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, 37-14. The Vols lost the 2007 SEC Championship Game to eventual national champ LSU in Atlanta, 21-14, in an epic late-game meltdown by the normally reliable Erik Ainge. They lost the 2004 SEC Championship Game to No. 3 Auburn, 38-28. And the 2003 Peach Bowl to an unranked Clemson team (the Vols were No. 6 in the nation), 27-14. And the 2002 Peach Bowl to Maryland, 30-3.
Perhaps most painfully, Tennessee lost the 2001 SEC Championship Game to LSU and its scout team quarterback, 31-20. The Vols were coming off an epic upset of Florida in The Swamp, were ranked No. 2 in the country, and were in the driver’s seat for a return trip to the BCS National Championship Game.
Add it all up, and Tennessee hadn’t won in Atlanta in 14 years before Dooley and his 2012 Vols took NC State to the woodshed. Along the way, the Vols had lost six consecutive games in Hotlanta. Throw in the basketball program’s struggles during the years when the SEC Tournament was held annually in the Georgia Dome — that building and that tournament were Bruce Pearl’s Achilles heel at Tennessee — and it’s no wonder that Vols fans were gunshy at the very mention of a trip down I-75 to Peachville.
That 2012 game exorcised a few demons. Like this year’s Tennessee-Georgia Tech tilt, that 2012 game between the Vols and the Wolfpack was expected to be a closely-contested game, where a single play could determine the outcome. Instead, it was all Vols. While Patterson was wowing fans on the offensive side of the ball, Tennessee’s defense was equally good, forcing NC State into four interceptions.
The venue has changed — this year’s game is at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — but the event is the same, as Tennessee prepares to do its part to help the SEC show up the ACC on college football’s opening weekend.
Can the Vols recapture the magic of 2012 when they travel to Atlanta for Labor Day weekend? Much has been made of the difficulty of preparing for Georgia Tech’s complicated offense, but sometimes games simply come down to intangibles. And if you’re looking for a sign, consider this: Butch Jones is 5-0 in games played at neutral sites during his tenure at Tennessee. In addition to being 3-0 in bowl games, his team defeated Bowling Green in Nashville in 2015, and Virginia Tech in Bristol in 2016.
So there’s that.
Of course, if 2017’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game does go the way of the 2012 game, and the Vols win it in a rout, a word of caution might be in order for UT fans. No other than Dooley himself cautioned fans to put the brakes on the enthusiasm after the 2012 rout of NC State — for good reason, as it turned out. Tennessee would win just three more games the rest of the season before the university canned Dooley and handed the reins to Jim Chaney on an interim basis for a win over Kentucky. One month later, Jones was hired to replace Dooley.
It’s impossible for fans to not draw parallels. One of them is a season-opening game in Atlanta against an ACC opponent. But the other is the fact that many see Jones as being on the hot seat as this season begins . . . much the same as Dooley was in 2012.
So there’s that, too.