By HARRY KING
LITTLE ROCK — Addressing the need for a weekly SEC football fix, league coaches take the stage. Shared by Houston Nutt and Mark Richt a year ago, the hot seat belongs solely to Tennessee’s Derek Dooley.
In a win-or-else situation, Nutt exited Oxford, Miss. Richt captured a division championship in Athens, Ga.
In Knoxville, Dooley needs a regular-season closer to the Bulldogs’ 10-2 than the Rebels’ 2-10 to be certain of a fourth year wearing orange pants.
There were some legitimate excuses for the Vols’ 5-7 record, but Dooley’s harshest critics cite Tennessee’s uninspired play in the season finale against Kentucky and the fact that the Vols lost four games by 10 points or more. The 10-7 loss to Kentucky was Tennessee’s first since 1984, and the fact that the Wildcats ran the single wing with a senior wide receiver at quarterback made things worse.
Pile that on top of a 138-35 deficit against LSU, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas, and the embarrassment is understandable, particularly for a program that was a perennial top 10 for years under Phillip Fulmer. From 1993 through 2004, the Vols were never worse than 5-3 in the SEC and were 7-1 or better seven times.
Under Dooley, Tennessee is 4-12 in the SEC, including 1-7 last season.
Dooley defenders cite the situation he inherited from Lane Kiffin, particularly the shortage of players, plus injuries that sidelined quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Justin Hunter for much of 2011.
The return of Bray, a key to a four-game winning streak at the end of 2010, is as welcome as a change in schedule — Mississippi State and Missouri replace LSU and Arkansas.
Things can change in the fall, but prior to the start of spring practice, you would be hard-pressed to find another SEC coach in deep water. The next-best candidate for the unwanted position is Joker Phillips, 11-14 in two seasons at Kentucky.
The season-ending victory over Tennessee placated some, but the Wildcats lose two of their best defensive players and Arkansas replaces Ole Miss on the schedule.
If folks in the Bluegrass state cared more about football, Phillips’ situation would be worse. But basketball is No. 1 in their hearts and John Calipari’s Wildcats are No. 1 in the country.
The first-year coach at Texas A&M and the long-term coach at Missouri are off limits until at least one year in the SEC, and the Western Division coaches are either successful or new.
Alphabetically, consider them:
— Chizik, Gene, Auburn, won eight a year after winning the national championship. There may be some carping this year if the offense flounders without coordinator Gus Malzahn.
— Freeze, Hugh, Ole Miss, a 10-game winner in his only year as head coach at Arkansas State University, he gets a pass his first year in Oxford.
— Miles, Les, LSU, always on the hit list of certain Tiger fans, his team’s 13-0 record was dismissed by some critics who zeroed in on LSU’s performance in the BCS title game.
— Mullen, Dan, Mississippi State, has guided the Bulldogs to two consecutive bowls. The knock is that MSU has not beaten any team in the Western Division other than Ole Miss during his three years.
— Petrino, Bobby, Arkansas, 11-2 and No. 5 in the country on top of 10-3. Are you kidding?
— Saban, Nick, Alabama, two national titles in three years. Enough said.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.