If you want a quick and easy gauge of how happy a college football team's fanbase is with its current lot in life, check out their season ticket sales. Auburn fans? Yep, pretty happy: they've sold out their season tickets for this season. Oregon fans? Hope you like standing-room-only. Think Mississippi State supporters are pleased with Dan Mullen's decision to return to Starkville for another season? They've already broken their record for earliest sell-out, set just last year.
Contrast that with the reports out of Tennessee, where the picture isn't nearly so rosy:
As of Friday, the school had sold roughly 61,500 of its 72,500 season tickets, said UT senior associate athletic director for external operations Chris Fuller. That's about 2,000-2,500 tickets fewer than what was sold at this point last year.
"We've got some work left to do for sure," Fuller said. "When you look at the factors in our case, obviously most of our fans lock in on performance.
"If you win, they'll come."Certainly, last year's 6-7 mark isn't the kind of winning Volunteer fans are used to. But the chaos of the Lane Kiffin era didn't exactly leave the cupboard full, and on paper, Tennessee should be much improved in 2011. There's budding stars at quarterback (Tyler Bray) and wide receiver (Justin Hunter); arguably the SEC's best secondary now that Janzen Jackson has returned; the natural improvement that comes with being in the second year of a coaching transition; and the impressive* four-game winning streak to end the regular season.
In short, this seems like the perfect formula for an atmosphere of optimism and excitement, and with dates against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, the home schedule shouldn't be that much of a drag. So why aren't Volunteer fans buying in? Is there a way to answer that question that doesn't suggest skepticism regarding Derek Dooley?
Maybe. The economy's still no great shakes, of course. Cavernous Neyland Stadium means that sell-outs are going to be naturally harder to come by. And improved or not, the Vols are almost certainly still another year or two away from being an SEC East contender again.
But we doubt too many Mississippi State fans believe they've got a shot at an SEC West title, and that hasn't stopped them. No team in the country has been more disappointing over the past two seasons than Georgia, but the Dawgs sold out their 2010 season tickets with ease and have already bought their entire allotment of seats for the 2011 opener vs. Boise State. In the SEC, any glimmer of hope is usually enough for demand to outstrip supply.
Not selling out still isn't an issue, necessarily, considering the huge numbers of seats the Vols have available. But that tickets are selling at a reduced pace in year two of the Dooley era suggests all the same that the Volunteer rank-and-file simply weren't impressed by year one, and don't yet see the need to get in on the ground floor for years three and four.
It's far too early to start speculating about what this might mean for Dooley's job security. But with a new A.D. in charge (eventually), we also don't doubt Dooley is already feeling the pressure to make sure that downward arrow on the sales graph is heading in a different direction this time next summer.
*Yeah, the wins came over Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Still, the average margin of victory in the streak was 24 points, with none of the four decided by single digits. That's nothing to sneeze at.