There’s little doubt that some of the magic of the 2015 season is long gone. Yes, many rationale fans and pundits saw a somewhere-in-the-middle type of season where the Vols showed progress and ended with seven-to-nine wins.
Part of the excitement of 2015, however, was also about what could be.
Whether a Tennessee fan believed some of the outlandish predictions that had the Vols winning the SEC title or going to the College Football Players or not, the fact that they were out there and conceivably could happen, gave 2015 some extra sparkle.
It gave the beaten-down Vol fanbase hope.
That hope took a hit in the heart-breaker against Oklahoma, it was gashed in The Swamp when Aaron Medley’s kick sailed just right and then completely left the building when the Vols dropped two of their next three in the SEC to virtually eliminate them from any SEC East contention conversation. Sure, there were signs of progress and high points along the way. The magic season died early in 2015, however.
But those high points, namely a dramatic come-from-behind win over Georgia, a drubbing of Kentucky and an overall increased level of competition this year leave the Vols in a decent spot. They’re 6-4 (3-3 SEC), bowl eligible and still on track to show tangible improvement in the final record. They’re bowl eligible in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2009-10 and in that situation for the first time under the same coach since 2006-07.
This is the earliest in the season they’ve made it to bowl eligibility since 2007, they’re one win from matching their best overall win total since 2009 and just two more from hitting their best win total mark since 2007. Those aren’t magical numbers that rally a fanbase desperate to win big again, but they are realistic and tangible goals that would show improvement.
“Those are all things in the building blocks of a football program,” Butch Jones said on Monday.”It’s evidence of how far we’ve come in a short period of time, and it’s not propaganda, it’s real, but it’s also a compliment to our players and everyone in our football organization in a very short period of time of how special Tennessee is and when you get the right people on board and your players believe in each other and they keep grinding, good things will happen. But there’s a lot to play for. This is a very, very big game for us just like it is for Missouri as we continue to move the program forward.”
And he’s right on a lot of levels when he says there’s a lot to play for. The fact that UT has never beaten Missouri is another to add to the list. The chance to take a very positive step as a program in 2015 is very much still on the table.
There’s more on the line, however, than that though for Butch Jones. There’s another side of the coin. And that coin started to flip after UT built a 17-0 lead over South Carolina two weeks ago. The Vols have limped in the past seven quarters or so to some of their most sluggish football of the year. Does he need to apologize for winning those football games? Absolutely not. He had some comments on that Monday as well.
“I think all of a sudden, I can see the transformation in our football program now because now just winning isn’t enough, which probably is a good thing – it shows progress,” he said. “But from where we’ve come in this football program over the last 10 years, I’m never going to apologize for winning. These players have given everything that they’ve had. We’ve found a way to win football games. We all want perfection, that’s what you strive for in this profession, our players do, our fans do, but it’s played by human beings, and at this level it is played by 17-22 year olds. But again, there are some things that obviously we have to get corrected playing a quality opponent like Missouri, but also, we did some good things.”
But just like a promising loss to Alabama was used as a springboard to galvanize the team on its way to a blowout over Kentucky, a sloppy win or two can turn into a damaging loss. And that’s what it would be if the Vols fall to a mediocre, though inspired, Missouri team, or a subpar, though improving, Vanderbilt team. Many of those signs of promise I mentioned near the beginning would be diminished, or vanquish altogether.
Tennessee doesn’t want Butch Jones to go anywhere after this season. That’s just a fact. He’s done too much, worked too hard and shown enough promise that the Vols would be foolish to think of going any other direction at this point, regardless how the last two games go. But 7-5 or 6-6 just doesn’t carry the same weight that a two-game regular-season improvement would. And if the Vols aren’t the breakout team that many are hoping in Year 4 under Jones, all of those factors will be taken into consideration.
Missouri and Vanderbilt won’t have the hype of an Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia or Alabama matchup, but, indeed, they are big for the Vols. As Jones said, there’s still a lot to play for.