Grading Butch Jones’ First 3 Years as Vols’ Head Coach

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    Graduation has come and gone for the University of Tennessee, which means final grades are in for all attending students. In honor of that, it’s time to look back and grade each of Butch Jones’ three seasons as head coach of Tennessee’s football and give him an overall grade for his performance thus far.

    Jones’ grades will be purely for coaching, not recruiting. Although recruiting goes into what Jones and his staff can do on the field and how much talent they have compared to other teams, his report card is just for on the field results.

    So without further adieu, let’s take a look at Butch Jones’ report card.

    2013

    Butch Jones’ first season as Tennessee’s head football coach resulted in the program’s third straight 5-7 season and fourth consecutive losing season. There were highlights, such as the Vols’ 23-21 upset over No. 11 South Carolina in Neyland Stadium on October 19th. A close game against Georgia the previous game was another sign of positivity, and even the Florida game, despite the decision to start Nathan Peterman over Justin Worley, showed glimpses of hope for the Vols.

    But several devastating blowouts to Oregon, Alabama, and Auburn, and Missouri pockmarked the season, and a gut-wrenching 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt ended any bowl hopes the Vols would have that season.

    Injuries riddled the team in Jones’ first year, most notably at quarterback. A freshman Josh Dobbs had to come in against Alabama after Worley suffered a season-ending injury, and he wouldn’t win as starter until the final game of the season against Kentucky.

    All in all, Jones’ first season had some good moments especially considering the bare cupboard of a roster Jones inherited. But the bad definitely outweighed the good in 2013.

    Grade: C

    2014

    Butch’s second season started out with a bang thanks to a 38-7 rout of Utah State. But much like 2013, there were plenty of ups and downs. The difference between Jones’ first and second season was more young talent and the Vols reasserting themselves over teams they historically had dominated.

    And in a season that demanded the Vols get back into the bowl picture, Butch Jones met expectations.

    The Vols were in danger of dropping out of bowl contention yet again at the start of November, and it never looked more dire than it did late in the fourth quarter against South Carolina. Then a Josh Dobbs-led offense caught fire and made an improbable comeback against the Gamecocks, eventually winning 45-42 in overtime. That was the turning point of the 2014 season, the Vols were able to find six wins and make the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010.

    Then Tennessee demolished Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl, giving them a 7-6 record for the year.

    Even though the season ended well, it was not without its low points, most notably during the Florida week. Once again.

    The Vols had the Gators on the ropes in Neyland Stadium in the first ever “Checker Neyland,” but the offense was too complacent and never scored a touchdown the entire game. The Vols had a 9-0 lead but collapsed late in the game, and the Gators escaped Neyland with a 10-9 victory.

    Tennessee looked helpless against Ole Miss and for the first half against Alabama, and Oklahoma won fairly easily earlier in the season. Georgia had another close win over the Vols, and Missouri once again extended its unbeaten streak over Tennessee late in the season. But despite a historically bad offensive line and extremely young two-deep depth chart, Butch Jones and the Vols found their six wins and got a seventh in the bowl game.

    Grade: B-

    2015

    Butch’s third season at the helm of Tennessee’s football team will likely always be remembered for what could’ve been rather than what it actually was.

    The Vols finished 9-4 on the season, continuing their trend of gaining two wins a season under Butch Jones. But the four losses were all heart-breaking, anxiety-inducing defeats. And the Vols were arguably the better overall team in at least two, if not three of the games.

    It started when the Vols hosted Oklahoma in Neyland with a sold-out crowd in front of a prime time ESPN audience. It was Checker Neyland again, and the Vols looked poised to take the NCAA by storm when they roared out to a 17-0 lead over the Sooners.

    But then the collapse began. And it happened again and again in the next month of games.

    The Vols were unimaginative on offense, and the defense suffered thanks to short possessions on offense. The Sooners chipped away and ended up forcing the game into overtime despite trailing by double digits in the second half. Oklahoma won 31-24 in double overtime, and Vol fans were devastated.

    And that was only the beginning.

    Tennessee had a 27-14 lead in the fourth quarter against Florida in The Swamp just two weeks later. But more conservative offensive play-calling and a poorly chosen defensive alignment that allowed a fourth and 14 to be converted by the Gators for a touchdown doomed the Vols, and they fell 28-27 to Florida, marking the 11th consecutive loss to the Gators.

    Then in Neyland the next week, Tennessee lost to Arkansas 24-20 despite gaining yet another double-digit lead in the first half.

    If not for a miraculous comeback against Georgia the following week, the 2015 season could’ve been truly devastating. But thanks to the Vols roaring back from a 24-3 deficit in the second quarter against the Bulldogs, Tennessee’s season was saved.

    The Vols lost to Alabama 19-14 in their next game, and even though Tennessee gained the lead in the fourth quarter, they lost that game more because the eventual National Championship-winning Crimson Tide were just the better team and flexed their muscles on offense.

    After the Alabama game, the Vols wouldn’t lose the rest of the season. Even if some games seemed uninspiring, they were still victories, and blowouts against Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern in the Outback Bowl lifted the spirits of Vol fans.

    Butch Jones’ third season as Tennessee’s head coach will always be remembered for its collapses. But a historically proficient run game and special teams helped get the Vols back on track and earn their most victories since 2007.

    Grade: B

    Overall

    For the first two seasons of his tenure as head coach of Tennessee, Butch Jones met expectations. He didn’t exceed them or under perform; he merely did what was expected. And on paper and looking at the record and expectations before the season, he did the same in 2015 too. But looking further into that season will show the missed opportunities and a chance for something greater.

    Many fans will blame Jones and the coaching staff for the failures of 2015. And for the most part, that’s a fair assessment. But players deserve blame as much as they deserve credit for wins, so heaping all the blame on Jones and his staff is unfair.

    Butch Jones has yet to lead his team to victory over Florida or Alabama. They earned one over Georgia in 2015 and are undefeated against South Carolina. Jones’ Vols have also reasserted themselves over Vanderbilt and finally found a win against Missouri. Two blowout bowl victories are also under Jones’ belt.

    The Vols were in at an all-time low when Jones took over. He’s been able to rebuild this program rather quickly through recruiting and roster turnover. And to do what he’s done in three years considering where Tennessee was is rather impressive. And it looks like things are finally coming together.

    But as for his first three years, Jones has had a mixed bag on the field. But he’s definitely learning.

    Grade: B-

    Nathanael Rutherford
    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.