Just one season into Tennessee Vols head coach Butch Jones time in Knoxville gave Big Orange Country reasons to be optimistic about the future. Instead of not being in the conversation for the nation’s top high school recruits, these highly touted players suddenly gave serious consideration to wearing orange and white for their college careers. And after Tennessee knocked off then No. 11 South Carolina on a game-winning field goal in Knoxville, it was easy to see why the future looked so bright.
Despite the evidence of early progress, both fans and the national media understood the rebuild would take time. However, both pegged the 2016 season as the year where the culmination of Tennessee’s recruiting efforts, wins and experience would bring the Vols their first SEC East title since 2007.
As we all witnessed, the Vols fell short of that goal in 2016.
After Jauan Jennings’ incredible hail mary reception to beat Georgia, fate itself seemed to root for Tennessee. Fate again intervened on Tennessee’s behalf against Texas A&M when Aggies running back Trayveon Williams broke through the middle of the Tennessee defense and charged through for what looked like an inevitable 70-yard game-winning touchdown.
Vols cornerback Malik Foreman had other ideas.
Foreman punched the ball out of Williams’ grasp after chasing him down, and the ball bounced into the endzone and out of bounds, which resulted in a touchback for Tennessee. Even though Tennessee lost the game in double overtime, it still showed how much resilience the team played with. That in of itself was a welcome change after Tennessee was criticized all offseason for losing several leads in 2015.
But shortly after Tennessee’s rough stretch of games, fans believed the worst of the season to be behind them. All Tennessee had to do was to win out against teams like South Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Missouri. While the Vols got the expected wins against Kentucky and Missouri, no one saw losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt coming. And fans still are not pleased about it.
So now that the 2016 season is over and a few months have passed since Clemson’s exciting victory over Alabama in the national championship, perhaps it’s time to evaluate where Tennessee stands. Or more specifically, maybe it’s time to evaluate where Butch Jones stands.
Fans have grown impatient with Jones, believing that his opportunity to win the SEC East vanished at conclusion of 2016.
Recruiting rankings took a dip for Tennessee, too. Georgia landing a top-5 class made Tennessee’s dip in recruiting an even greater cause for concern.
So now the question should be asked: Is Butch Jones on the hot seat?
Vol fans are tired of disappointments. They want an SEC East title. At this point, “want” does not get to the heart of the matter. “Starved” might be the word.
What fans may have missed in their starved state is the progress the program has made since Jones’ arrival. Coming at the heels of former coach Derek Dooley’s inability to win any meaningful games for Tennessee, Jones’ had to completely reshape the Vols from the ground up, or as Jones put it “brick-by-brick.”
In his four seasons as head coach, Jones delivered on achievements previous coaches did not. For example, Tennessee witnessed Jones’ first signature win after beating then No. 11 South Carolina 23-21.
In 2014, Tennessee clinched its first bowl appearance since 2010 where they defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 45-28 in the Taxslayer Bowl.
In 2015, Tennessee overcame a 24-3 deficit to beat Georgia 38-31 in Knoxville. That was the first victory against the Bulldogs since 2007, the same year as Tennessee’s last SEC East title.
Tennessee then ended another losing streak in 2016 after beating Florida 38-28 after 11 straight failed attempts of doing so. The Vols also started the 2016 season 5-0 for the first time since 1998, which was the last season Tennessee won the national championship.
And finally, Tennessee appeared in three straight bowl games and won all three.
It’s clear Jones has been a positive influence for the University of Tennessee, but to argue that Jones is blameless for any of the Vols’ stumbles is simply inaccurate.
Tennessee did not handle the pressures of being picked the favorites to win the SEC East. The team often started slow in games, usually having to overcome deficits to win. It seemed once the team settled into the flow of the game, breaks started to go Tennessee’s way. Jones and his newly assembled staff must improve on handling the pressure better in the future.
While Jones’ efforts have not produced results as quickly as the “starved” fans wanted, it’s still nothing short of incredible what Jones has accomplished at Tennessee. In fact, other coaches in college football have contacted Jones for advice on how to turn around their own respective programs. That shows the level of respect and reputation Jones has earned among his peers.
Vol fans may not be as excited for 2017 as they were for 2016, but Tennessee is certainly capable of winning games in the SEC. No longer is the offseason attention and, consequently, pressure on Tennessee. Jones and his staff have an opportunity to make an unexpected splash in the SEC East. Whether the element of surprise will aid Tennessee’s 2017 campaign remains to be seen. One thing does seem certain though: Jones’ efforts improved the program and, because of his recent achievements, has earned the opportunity to continue to coach the University of Tennessee beyond 2017.