For whatever faults you might find in Butch Jones, he’s always at least met general expectations at Tennessee heading into the 2016 season.
There were very few in 2013 when he took over a ravaged program – just show some progress and maybe steal a win. Both were accomplished. Getting to a bowl game was the primary expectation for the team in 2014. Mission accomplished. Eight or nine wins was about the median expectation heading into 2015. The Vols hit the former in the regular season and the latter with the bowl win.
Enter 2016. Ten wins and a trip to Atlanta were the expectations, both from myself and a majority of Tennessee fans I encountered one the course of the offseason. For the first time, it looks like Jones will come up short.
And while Jones was quick to point out that there is a lot of football to be played this season after UT’s 24-21 loss at South Carolina Saturday evening, none of it can change the narrative that 2016 is going to come up short. Tennessee needs a parting of the SEC East waters at this point to make it to Atlanta. Most realistically, the Vols would need to win out and then have Florida drop two out of three to South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Impossible? No. Much less likely after Saturday? Absolutely.
Even if that were all to play out, it’s impossible to have any confidence in this team’s chance against the West representative. Whether it be frontrunner Alabama. Texas A&M, Auburn or LSU, the Vols currently look like a team that would be a tune-up matchup for them on the West champ’s way to the College Football Playoffs.
Regardless how the final four games, and the SEC standings, shake out, this isn’t how it was supposed to be in 2016. This was the year for it to all come together. Sure, the gauntlet of four games and the rash of injuries justified losses to Texas A&M and Alabama.
But the narrative of the season changed on Saturday evening. The 2016 Vols are now officially a disappointment.
The offensive pieces haven’t all clicked. Led by a senior quarterback, a veteran offensive line, three backs who have shown SEC-level skills, two experienced playmakers at tight end and three veteran receivers, that side of the ball has only shown glimpses of the high-powered machine it can be. Some of that falls on Joshua Dobbs, some falls to Mike DeBord, some to injury, and there’s plenty of blame to be spread around to others as well. Point fingers all you want, though. The bottom line is that it’s not getting the job done.
Defensively, Jones seemingly got one of the steals of the offseason in Bob Shoop at defensive coordinator. He’s been a top-10 defense-producing machine, but after vowing not to let anybody run on UT’s defense in 2016, the Vols just saw their seventh individual opponent hit the century mark on Saturday. Busted assignments and missed tackles happen far too often in what should be one of the best-coached units in the conference based on recent history.
UT fans should take a moderate approach to the injury issue. Denying that there is one when the Vols have dealt with approximately 20 issues that have cost players – in many cases some of UT’s best ones – is foolish. But that also can’t be the sole reason for a 39-point loss to Alabama and an uninspiring performance at South Carolina.
Effort, basic execution and aggression should always be on display, whether playing with a full hand or half a deck. That simply hasn’t been there at times over the past 120 minutes of football for UT.
Jones is going to get some time to fix this, even though the frustration from the fanbase is understandable.
But he’s done enough at Tennessee to get some benefit of the doubt – especially given the injury situation this season. That won’t last forever, however. The 2017 team, one that will be replacing multiple key figures, is all his. The Vols will have a new AD in place before the season kicks off as well. The pressure will be high for Jones.
And now he’ll be heading into 2017 coming off what is more and more looking like a season that will fall short of expectations.