It’s natural, though, to compare Tennessee to some of the other programs in the SEC that have either rebuilt or are in the process of rebuilding. Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are all teams that comes to mind – programs that have been somewhere in the middle to the bottom pack of the SEC in recent years that now are showing some form of tangible improvement.
Butch Jones has never been one for too many comparisons, especially when it comes to rebuilding programs.
He elaborated on Ole Miss – which is one year ahead of Tennessee in the rebuilding process after Hugh Freeze took over in 2012 – and comparing what the Rebels have done to what the Vols are working on in the middle of year two of the process.
“I think every situation you inherit is different in and of itself,” Jones said. “What was the existing talent pool like? What was there in the program? There are reasons for everything. I think there may be some similarities, but there are some distinct differences as well. A lot of it is, where was the program when you took over? What was there?
“Right, wrong or indifferent, I am not saying bad, good or indifferent, I am just saying each program you take over – and this is our third time taking over a program – and each one is different. Each program you take over throughout the course of the country is different. A lot of time it is what is there and what is there in terms of a culture, a mindset, a work capacity, just an overall thought process, so there is a lot that goes into it that a lot of people don’t realize.”
Those are a lot of words to say that Jones, understandably, doesn’t want to dive too deeply into an Ole Miss/Tennessee rebuilding breakdown. And he has a fair point. The makeup of UT’s roster was different. The schedule has been different. Injury situations have been different. There just aren’t enough constants to make it a perfect comparison.
There really hasn’t been enough time to play out the comparisons yet either. The Vols are still tracking to somewhere between five and seven wins this season, in all likelihood. There’s still a lot of time left before a fair year two comparison can even be made.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze didn’t stop short of noting some of the comparisons, however, this week at his press conference. And whether or not they’re acknowledged by Jones, there are some similarities in what went on at Ole Miss and what is happening at Tennessee.
Both coaches inherited rosters with significant issues in year one. Both have had noticeable early success on the recruiting trail, brought in talented young players in year two and improved the team in many areas. The next step for Ole Miss has been massive – jumping from a competitive SEC team to in the thick of the SEC title hunt and a spot in the College Football Playoffs, while earning the highest ranking (No. 3) the program’s had since 1964.
It’s unknown if the Vols can take that kind of step next year, though Freeze clearly sees a Tennessee team following some of the steps he took Ole Miss through to get the Rebels where they are today.
“That team is eerily similar to our journey,” Freeze said. “They are a very, very talented team. They are hungry. It’s one of those scary games that you know they have good enough athletes to beat you. The job that Coach Jones and his staff have done is really admirable. They are quite talented. Again, they’re hungry. They’ve played some really quality teams very, very close.”
But don’t count on Jones looking up any stats or records and comparing UT to Ole Miss or anywhere else right now. The only comparison he’s interested in is last year to this year for his team. He sees a team getting better. That’s more important than what any of the other 13 programs in the SEC are doing.
“I always ask myself, when I go home every night, are we a better football team and a better football program day in and day out?” he said. “Are we a better football program now than where we were a year ago. And yes we are. We still have, as we all know, monumental strides in moving forward. But we are better right now than where we were a year ago.”