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Bricks Abound but Mortar is Scarce for Butch Jones

Photo by Parker Eidson

“The plan is infallible if the players buy in,” Butch Jones said at his introductory press conference. In retrospect, that brashness should have raised a red flag. Tennessee players have, without a doubt, bought in; yet, after 29 games under Jones the Vols sit at just 14-15. They also have a 5-12 SEC record and are 0-7 against their biggest rivals – Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Perhaps more alarming? They’ve been terrible in close games.

Butch Jones is now just 3-7 in one possession games against major conference opponents at Tennessee. His three wins in such situations have come over two programs, South Carolina (2013 and 2014) and Vanderbilt (2014), that hardly belong among college football’s elite. In fact, it took a historic comeback in 2014 for the Vols to beat the Gamecocks and a miraculous catch in 2013 for Tennessee to down them. The Vols headed to Vanderbilt last season with the superior football team, but played tight and nearly let the game get away from them in route to a 24-17 victory that had no business being that close.

After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in 14 days, no one is bemoaning those close wins – they’re weary of the inexplicable late collapses that have resulted in losses.

Tennessee has blown five fourth quarter leads under Jones – Georgia and Vanderbilt in 2013, Florida in 2014, Oklahoma in 2015 and then Florida again on Saturday. In all of those games, unimaginative play calling, questionable clock and personnel management and terrible overall game management plagued the Vols. And in four of those games, with Georgia in 2013 serving as the lone exception, Tennessee looked like the better team for the vast majority of the contest.

Two weeks ago against Oklahoma, the Vols carried a 14 point lead into the fourth quarter and looked poised, before a rowdy sellout crowd, to reclaim their place among college football’s elite. Then the offense sputtered to an eight yard fourth quarter while trying to sit on the lead and Tennessee eventually lost in overtime. Though that was the worst home loss in my lifetime, the loss to Florida outperformed even that spectacular collapse.

Just 14 days after blowing a two possession lead in the fourth quarter, you’d think Butch Jones and Co. would have learned their lesson. I know I did. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Tennessee’s lackluster play calling on both sides of the ball plus several botched game management situations allowed Florida multiple opportunities to get back in the game. With the Vols leading 20-7 in the third quarter, Jones took a timeout on fourth-and-6 when the Gators were lining up for a field goal. It was the second time he called a timeout in that situation – the first time, McElwain thought better of his decision to kick and opted to go for it. He did the same here and Florida converted on the way to a game changing touchdown.

That timeout looked like jaywalking after witnessing the coaching sins to follow.

With 10:19 remaining, Jalen Hurd scampered into the end zone to give Tennessee a 26-14 lead. Jones supposedly consulted a “chart” that told him to kick the extra point to go up 13 instead of going for two in hopes of going up 14. That abandonment of basic math would prove fatal.

On the next drive, Florida scored a touchdown to cut the lead to six with 4:09 remaining. Tennessee needed just a single first down to win the game, but three straight runs into the teeth of the Florida defense netted zero yards and ran just 1:51 off the clock. The Vols had to punt.

On the next drive redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier, on a career day through the air, let one rip to Antonio Callaway on fourth and 14 and Callaway took it to the house. The extra point, since Tennessee didn’t go for two, gave the Gators the lead.

The Vols drove into Florida territory and had a chance to win the game before clock mismanagement and a substitution penalty stopped Tennessee’s drive and resulted in a long, and close, Medley miss.

And with that, the Vols had just blown their second big fourth quarter lead of the season.

Those losses fall directly on the shoulders of Butch Jones. His team played well enough to win, but poor coaching decisions doomed them.

After the Oklahoma loss, a security guard at Neyland wisely claimed that he certainly sees a ton of bricks on the field, but he hasn’t seen much mortar. I told him I’d use that in a column and, well, there’s no time like the present.

Jones has recruited well and built a team that, finally, should be able to beat teams like Florida and Oklahoma. He put them in position to win those games with early aggressiveness, then passivity took over and squandered multiple golden opportunities to get the Volunteers “over the hump.”

This isn’t the MAC and it’s not the Big East (RIP). This is the SEC – practically the NFL minor leagues. You can’t coach on your heels. You can’t coach scared.

You have to be able to count to 14.

And you have to be able to handle the pressure.

Jones has never experienced the kind of pressure that the next few weeks are sure to hold. How he responds to that pressure will decide where the fanbase turns from here.

One thing is certain – after 29 games, Vol Nation clearly wouldn’t describe Jones’ coaching, especially late in games, as “infallible” – they’d be more likely to choose “incompetent.”

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