Some Big-Picture Thoughts on Tennessee, Butch Jones and the Future

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    Photo Credit: Anne Newman/RTI

    Photo Credit: Anne Newman/RTI

    It’s been several days now. The calendar has flipped to December.

    The anger and the shock of Tennessee losing 45-34 at Vanderbilt is wearing off just a bit. There have been plenty of hot takes, passionate rants, and articles calling for Butch Jones’ job or defending him to the bitter end.

    That’s all fine and part of college football, especially after an emotional loss in a rivalry to cap off an underwhelming season in a year that many thought could be the year for Tennessee.

    After taking all that in, listening to calls on RTI Radio, wading through social media, message boards and articles, I wanted to take a step back and look at what is and isn’t true about the 2016 season, the outlook for 2017 and Butch Jones’ future at UT:

    Like it or not, Tennessee isn’t firing Butch Jones this year

    I respect opinions on both sides of this conversation and think you can make a case either way in terms of what UT should theoretically do. But, at the end of the day, the only way Butch Jones is leaving Knoxville this year is if he chooses to. He likely won’t because he has a ton to gain financially by sticking around, and he isn’t going to find a job of Tennessee’s caliber at this point in his career.

    UT is at a point in history where the leadership structure simply isn’t in place to make such a move. The selection to take over as chancellor, Beverly Davenport, won’t be confirmed by the Board of Trustees until Dec. 15. Tennessee is also unlikely to have a new AD in place before Davenport is officially in place. Current AD Dave Hart and current chancellor Jimmy Cheek are both in lame-duck status.

    Simply put, they are not in position to make what would be a controversial move for the school at this point in their tenures. And Tennessee fans shouldn’t want them to either. With new leadership coming in shortly, it’s likely best for the long-term future of the program that the new leadership gets a look at Jones and, if a change needs to be made after the 2017 season, that the new AD is the one getting his or her opportunity to make the hire. Hart hiring someone now who isn’t a good fit with the new administration could be disastrous and lead to yet another coaching search in just a few years. That’s the last thing Tennessee needs.

    Jones has improved the program in virtually every measurable way since he took over

    It’s tough to believe that this is even debated, and I think it’s one of the reasons that Jones shows frustration sometimes. It’s simply a fact that Tennessee is in a much better place in late November of 2016 than it was in December of 2012 when Jones took over. Tennessee had massive financial, structural, academic and, of course, talent issues in the program when Derek Dooley was fired.

    Jones hasn’t solved every problem, and perhaps has been part of a few new ones, but Tennessee is in its most stable place in, arguably, the last decade or so. If you want to get a little creative with the math, you can point out that UT is 14-4 in its last 18 games. Perhaps a better stat is that only Florida (18) and Alabama (26) have won more overall games than UT over the past two season. Georgia is tied with Tennessee at 17. Tennessee has also hit eight wins for two consecutive seasons for the first time since 2006-07 and the Vols are headed to their third straight bowl game for the first time since 2002-04.

    Everything I just wrote – much of which has been the basis of why Jones has been so adamant about selling the improvement and positivity around the program – is completely true. The problem is that Jones already proved in the 2015 season that he could get Tennessee in a better spot than it had been in the dark late days of Fulmer/the short-lived Kiffin era/the Dooley era. Fans were ready to see if 2016 could be the next step, and…

    The 2016 season didn’t live up to expectations

    With Jones having already proven in 2015 that he was the man to take Tennessee out of some of its darkest times in history, 2016 became the year to prove that he could be a legitimate championship coach. All the ingredients were there – the East was down, the Vols had an experienced senior quarterback, two NFL running backs, several potential First-Team All-SEC defenders and finally enough experience and depth to compete with just about anybody in the nation. It felt like a “cycle up” type of season.

    The losses at Texas A&M and against Alabama were painful, but understandable. That still left Tennessee the opportunity to go 10-2, a mark that Vegas and many pundits set as a pretty realistic expectation for this team. The loss at South Carolina, coupled with a strong run by Florida down the stretch, took away any true championship aspirations for Tennessee. Jones only exasperated the fan base, which was looking for titles this year, by using phrases such as “individual champions,” “bowl champions” and “champions of life” over the course of the next few weeks.

    The intent was fine, but the delivery was poor.

    The Vols had a chance to back their way into a Sugar Bowl berth, an achievement that certainly would’ve appeased some who were upset at losing the SEC East. Tennessee, while getting all the help it needed on Rivalry Weekend by way of losses for Florida and Auburn, choked away its regular-season finale at Vanderbilt due to a third consecutive meltdown on defense – one that the offense this time wasn’t able to overcome.

    And while the 8-4 (4-4 SEC) mark was painful, some of the aforementioned comments by Jones, in addition to some off-the-field matters made 2016 feel like more of a circus. Jalen Hurd walked out on the team in the middle of the season just a few hundred yards short of the school rushing record and just a few months from being able to declare for the draft. Five-star receiver Preston Williams left too, while senior starter Danny O’Brien was booted off the team in the middle of the year.

    The perceived internal chaos certainly didn’t do much to soothe fears that Tennessee was heading in the wrong direction on the field.

    Jones has used momentum from strong finishes the past two seasons to launch the program into bowl season and then the offseason. It’s working against him this year. In a span of about a month and a half from Oct. 8 to Nov. 26, Tennessee lost four games, lost Williams, Hurd and O’Brien, fell from a playoff contender to a mid-tier bowl, all the while Jones made several comments that sat poorly with the fan base. That’s a lot of negative in a relatively short period of time.

    Injuries were a big part of the 2016 failures, but not the only part

    I’ve said for months now that fans should have a middle-of-the road approach to the injury situations. You can’t ignore them. You also can’t use them as an overarching excuse. Tennessee’s injury situation was one of the worst I’ve ever seen in college football. You simply can’t argue that losing the likes of Alvin Kamara, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and many others for multiple games doesn’t have an impact on the season.

    But while the situation was bleak at times, other programs dealt with injuries too – namely Florida, which went down to Baton Rouge missing several of its best players and pulled off the upset to clinch the SEC East. And the injuries have piled up at some such an alarming rate over the past couple years, the root cause must be examined. Is it a strength and conditioning program? Something the Vols are or aren’t doing in practice? A technique issue? I’m not sure, but Jones decided to can his strength and conditioning coach over the offseason and it looks like, from an injury prevention standpoint, it may have majorly backfired.

    And then there’s the question of depth. By year four under a coach, a program should be able to plug in second-teamers and not falter the way Tennessee did at times. The injury situation held Tennessee back, but shouldn’t have sunk UT against the likes of South Carolina and Vanderbilt the way it did.

    There’s hope for 2017

    The good news? Virtually everybody not named Alabama is looking for some answers this offseason heading into 2017. Tennessee likely won’t be the favorite in the East next year, but the Vols will certainly have a shot.

    Tennessee’s quarterback will be untested, but also extremely talented. The offensive line should return at least seven players who started a game in 2016. There will be targets in the passing game such as Jauan Jennings, Tyler Byrd, Ethan Wolf and maybe Josh Malone, depending on his NFL decision. John Kelly showed that he’s ready to be a capable SEC running back in 2016, and current running back commitment Ty Chandler looks to be an ideal fit.

    Defensively, there are questions, but it can’t get much worse. The defensive line will miss Derek Barnett, but could be in better overall shape with all the guys coming back from injury. The linebackers and the secondary will be question marks, but a lot of young players saw extra work in 2016 that weren’t expected to see the field. That could pay dividends. Key special teams cogs Evan Berry, Trevor Daniel and Aaron Medley should all return as well.

    There are major questions as well 

    While you can make a compelling argument that Tennessee should be competitive next year, you also have to acknowledge that Jones did less with more in 2016. It won’t get much easier in 2017. UT is expected be the only team in the East breaking in a new quarterback, with opposing young quarterbacks such as Jacob Eason, Jake Bentley, Jalen Hurts, Kyle Shurmur and others should all be even better next year.

    Florida, the presumptive favorite in the East, only has three true SEC road games (South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri) next year due to the scheduling issues with LSU in 2016. And Tennessee must travel to The Swamp, and to Alabama, places the Vols haven’t won in since 2003.

    After three decommitments on Tuesday evening, Tennessee now stands at No. 14 nationally in recruiting, according to the 247Sports Composite ranking. That’s not terrible, but this class doesn’t feel like it’s trending towards the top 10. The Vols have some talent in this class, but also certainly feel like they’ve lost some steam on the recruiting class after pushing the top five in recent years.

    This all sets up a win-or-else scenario for Jones in 2017

    Maybe you can argue that 2016 should’ve been the same way. But, again, the lack of leadership currently on campus, and the progress that Jones has shown makes it virtually impossible to make the move this year.

    There will be no excuse next year. Jones has already underachieved once and there will be a new permanent AD in place next year that will have had a full season of evaluation.

    It’s impossible to say exactly what the magic number is, but anything short of 10 wins and/or an SEC East title is going to put Jones’ job in serious danger following the 2017 season. Any noticeable regression will likely make it a simple decision.

    That’s where the program is right now. Fans are certainly entitled to their opinion one way or the other, but the reality remains that, in all likelihood, the Jones/UT marriage will be in tact for at least one more year. In my opinion, he’s done enough to warrant another shot to prove himself. But, like many of you, I’m skeptical after seeing many of the warning signs in 2016.

    It’s going to be an interesting 365 days coming up for this program, and it’s tough to say where it’ll be this time next year. Or who will be in charge.