When the Vols were 5-0 and in the top 10 of the AP Poll after the first week of October, Vol fans finally felt like the 2016 season was the season they had been waiting to witness for well over a decade.
Fast forward nearly two months, and all that has come crashing down.
Tennessee had the SEC East firm in its grasp, then the last five weeks of the season happened and the Vols didn’t just let the East title slip through their fingers: They handed it on a silver platter to Florida, even after beating the Gators this season for the first time in 11 years.
So what went wrong with the Vols this season? How does a team defeat two of its biggest rivals and control its own fate end up right back where they were at the end of last year?
It’s simple: The system is flawed.
Heading into their bye week this season, the Vols were 5-2 and had explainable losses to two good teams. Injuries had piled up in a big way, especially on defense, and that showed in both losses to Texas A&M and Alabama. The Vols’ inability to hold on to the ball also cost them against the Aggies, and that had been an issue all season to that point. Alabama was just more talented, and the Vols were playing second and third stringers as starters at multiple positions in that game.
But the Vols still mostly controlled their own fate. They needed Florida to lose one more SEC game and win out themselves. It wasn’t as tall a task considering none of the teams Tennessee played were above .500 and had Florida played both Arkansas and LSU down the stretch.
Then, mayhem happened.
The loss to South Carolina could even be explained away as a fluke if you wish. Yes, it came after a bye week and should never have happened. That’s not being argued. But with all the perceived team drama, chemistry questions, and voodoo that Will Muschamp apparently has against the Vols, it could be overlooked as long as the Vols took care of business and Florida lost two games.
But the Gators didn’t lose two games. The lost to Arkansas, then LSU inexplicably left its offense in the locker room when the two played in Baton Rouge, and Florida prevailed. And with that win, the Gators clinched the East.
The season would’ve been disappointing enough with that fact alone. But Tennessee had a chance to play for a potential Sugar Bowl berth in the last game of the regular season against in-state rival Vanderbilt. There was still a shot to salvage the season into something respectable.
It wasn’t meant to be, however.
Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt 45-34 in Nashville on Saturday, ending any hopes of making the Sugar Bowl and likely relegating the Vols to the same tier of bowls they’ve made the previous two seasons. The Vols finish with the same regular season record this year as they did last year despite having more experienced talent overall this season. Yes, injuries undoubtedly played a factor, but the losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt and the way they lost them wasn’t because injuries alone.
So why did the Vols collapse? Because there are cracks in the system. And that system needs an overhaul.
Teams have started out hot and collapsed down the stretch before. That happens every season. But it’s the way the Vols did it, how they played all season, and the attrition on the team that revealed the glitches in the system.
Even when the Vols were 5-0, it felt like luck was carrying the team. Yes, great teams create their own luck, and pure chance wasn’t the only reason Tennessee had found success to start the year. But the Vols were playing sloppy, incomplete games even in the first month-plus of the season. Then the seven turnover game against Texas A&M happened and the shellacking by Alabama, and things started to unravel.
Tennessee lost to two .500 football teams in their last five games of the season. Tennessee lost to two mediocre conference opponents on the road after defeating both Florida and Georgia in the same season.
Losing to South Carolina and missing out on the SEC East was enough to show that things needed to be changed this offseason. But throw in the loss to Vanderbilt on the road to end the season, and it’s apparent Butch Jones’ system isn’t as airtight as he thought.
Forget just the on-field results. Look what happened off the field too. You had a high-profile wide receiver leave in the middle of the season, a senior defensive tackle get kicked off the team, and Jalen Hurd decide to transfer all within a few weeks. Hurd, the former five-star in-state running back who was one of the faces of the program. Hurd, the running back who was a few hundred yards away from becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. He left the team.
Something is wrong on Rocky Top. And it needs to be fixed if the Vols are ever going to get back to where they want to be.
Does that mean the house needs to be cleaned out and Jones needs to be fired? That’s not what I’m advocating at all. But Jones needs to take a step back and not only evaluate his staff and the program, but also himself. Jones has to examine his process and philosophies and figure out where to go from here. Because it’s worked to a point, but it appears as though the Vols have now hit a wall.
Unless Jones changes the system, it’s going to remain broken. And that will keep the Vols at a standstill until something is changed for him.