Another Tennessee-Florida game is in the books and we’re now somewhere in the middle of that endless stretch of North Florida and South Georgia that will inevitably turn into Atlanta traffic before finally making it back to the Volunteer State several hours from now.
I’m with colleague Houston Kress and a couple friends, Graham and Spenser, who made the trek down with us to Florida.
We’re trying to make some kind of sense what happened last night. We’re kicking around a lot of the questions that most of you probably have as well. Why did Butch Jones go for one after the last touchdown to make it a 13-point lead instead of possibly 14? Why the timeouts when Florida had decided to kick…twice? Why so conservative on the second-to-last possession when a first down practically wins the game? How can a team, with two timeouts still in the pocket, only get three plays off in the final minute of the game?
Reed Carringer did a phenomenal job of breaking down a lot of the gaffes and the questions from Tennessee’s gut-wrenching, but all-too-predictable, meltdown in the 28-27 loss to Florida on Saturday. I’m not going to walk through every one of them again.
But I am struck by how different this ride back home feels from another trip to Florida in January. Houston and I spent a week in the Jacksonville area at that time covering the Vols as they prepared for and then dismantled an Iowa team that never stood a chance in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Recruiting was on fire at that time, too. The Vols pulled top junior college cornerback Justin Martin in while in Jacksonville. On the ride home, we stopped at a Chick-fil-A to write about the commitment of an in-state, five-star talent, Kyle Phillips, who not long earlier looked like a near lock to leave the state.
The Vols were surging up the recruiting rankings. The way-too-early Top 25s were coming out for the 2015 season and a Tennessee team, loaded with returning talent and with more on the way, was finding its way into almost all of them.
That bowl demolition, combined with a 4-1 finish to the season, the return of a strong nucleus of players and the arrival of new players such as Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, Phillips, Preston Williams and others had Vol fans in a frenzy. You could argue that the Phillips commitment, in light of all the positivity around the program, was the high point of the Butch Jones era to that point.
Jones was all the rage among Vol Nation, everything he touched was turning to gold.
Eight months later, as we pass the aforementioned Chick-fil-A on another trip back from Florida, it’s amazing how the conversation has changed. Our tweets are met with a mixed reaction of disgust, confusion, anger and then the hope from a few eternal optimists that are convinced 10-2 is still around the corner this year.
But two absolutely soul-crushing defeats in arguably the biggest non-conference game (Oklahoma) and conference game (Florida) in Jones’ tenure thus far have significantly slowed, if not stopped, much of that momentum. The way they unfolded made it all the worse – blowing two-score leads in the fourth quarter both times with a nightmarish combination of bad game management, poor execution and so many opportunities to finish that were squandered. The postgame explanations that accompanied haven’t been satisfactory enough to appease a frustrated fanbase either.
The questions have now changed. Can the Vols ever learn to win the big ones with consistency? Why does Jones continue to make bizarre decisions that come back to haunt UT? Is Jones the right guy long-term or more of a talented recruiter who can’t get it done on Saturdays?
Though the early returns this year have been extremely concerning, I’m not ready to make some final judgment on the Jones era. In many ways, the successes he had earlier in his career are responsible for the high expectations that have left many feeling crushed just four weeks in this year. And as cliché and frustrating as it to say, it is true the Vols have been just a matter of a couple plays from 4-0 and likely being in the Top 10-15 or so nationally at this point. Tennessee still has the talent to beat almost anybody remaining on the schedule. I understand the skepticism that it will happen though.
So now many of the deserving bunch of Tennessee fans that travelled to Gainesville yet again this weekend are somewhere on this I-75 journey back home. And I bet the conversations are similar in the cars around us.
It’s a much different feel from that last trip back from the state of Florida. Much of that optimism is gone and the questions are swirling. The Vols will wait, yet again, to see if they can get some positive answers in the coming weeks.