Mark Story: Whose coaching seat is hotter, UK's Phillips or UT's Dooley?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 16, 2012 

Other than John L. Smith with his 10-month contract at Arkansas, Tennessee's Derek Dooley and Kentucky's Joker Phillips are considered the two SEC head football coaches on the hottest seats entering 2012.

There is a certain kismet to the UK and UT head men being so linked. Starting with 2006, Kentucky and Tennessee football have traveled remarkably similar arcs.

Since '06, Tennessee is 42-35 overall; Kentucky is 41-36.

Tennessee has played in four bowl games since 2006, winning one; Kentucky has played in five bowl games since 2006, winning three.

Tennessee has had three losing seasons overall; Kentucky has had two losing seasons overall.

Since 2006, Tennessee is 5-21 against ranked teams; Kentucky is 3-21 against ranked teams.

In conference games against SEC teams other than each other, Tennessee is 17-25; Kentucky is 15-27.

The one area since 2006 where Orange has held clear sway over Blue is head-to-head.

Last year's Matt Roark-led Kentucky upset of UT — which snapped the embarrassing 26-game Kentucky losing streak to the Vols — made the Cats 1-5 vs. the Volunteers since 2006.

Yet the recent series has been closer than that suggests. In 2006, '07 and '09, Kentucky had the football on its final drive of regulation in the UT red zone needing to score a touchdown to win each of the games. To the raging frustration of the Kingdom of the Blue, the Cats failed to punch through in any of the three.

Roark's "wide receiver playing quarterback" heroics last November finally allowed Kentucky to remove a stain from the commonwealth's psyche. Still, how much better would the perception of the UK football program be now if the Cats had won even two of those three recent UT games that they failed to pull out at the end?

When the Wildcats travel to Knoxville on Nov. 24, they will be seeking their first back-to-back victories over Tennessee since 1976 and '77 and their first victory in Neyland Stadium since 1984.

It is possible that by the time of that season finale that the coaching fates of Dooley and Phillips will be known? Or it is possible the outcome of the 2012 UK-UT contest may determine the futures of one or both?

Whose coaching seat burns hottest?

Both Dooley and Phillips enter their third seasons at their schools with records of 11-14 overall. Both are 4-12 in SEC games. Each has had two losing seasons with one bowl trip (which both lost). In terms of "good victories," Phillips leads. The UK coach has a road win over Louisville (2010), an upset over No. 10 South Carolina (2010) and ending the 26-game losing streak to Tennessee (2011). Dooley's best victories at UT are over Cincinnati (2011), Vanderbilt (2011) and UK (2010), all at home.

Still, entering 2012, Tennessee's Dooley appears to be in a stronger position to secure and extend his employment.

UT returns a whopping 19 starters off last year's 5-7 team. Tennessee's Tyler Bray (if he cuts out the knucklehead off-the-field activities) could emerge as the best quarterback in the SEC. In Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter (back from a season-ending ACL tear in 2011), UT might have the most gifted pair of wide receivers in the league.

Another big break Dooley gets in 2012 is the schedule. Last year, UT had to face all three of the SEC West's titans — Alabama, LSU and Arkansas. This year, the Vols face only the Crimson Tide.

At UK, no SEC team has fewer starters returning than the 11 Phillips has. The UK coach will be heavily dependent on sophomores and freshmen, especially at the offensive skill positions.

If you believe Phillips needs a winning season to come back (which I'm not sure is the correct stance, but that's a different column) then the season breaks down like this.

Should Kentucky beat non-conference foes Kent State, Western Kentucky and Samford, then Phillips' coaching destiny could rest on how many wins the Cats can carve out from among the following "swing games:" (at) Louisville, Mississippi State, (at) Missouri, Vanderbilt and (at) Tennessee.

At least now, it does not appear that Kentucky will be favored to win any of those five contests. Bottom line: Dooley's seat is hotter at Tennessee because he's at a school whose fan base is more demanding of football success.

The good news for the UT head man, though, is he appears set up for a better chance than his Kentucky counterpart to win significant games in 2012.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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