Through the first five games of last season, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones looked like he was beginning to find his groove in big, close games for the Vols. Tennessee won in a big way on a big stage in the Battle at Bristol, came from behind against Florida, and won on a miraculous Hail Mary against Georgia as time expired.
But those games have proven to be outliers in Jones’ time at Tennessee.
Jones proved again this Saturday why he isn’t the coach you want calling plays in a close, must-win game for the Vols. Tennessee had multiple opportunities to pull out a win against the Florida Gators in the Swamp on Saturday, but whether it was play-calling or lack of execution, Tennessee found a way to lose, 26-20.
The poor execution wasn’t on Jones. But the play-calling ultimately was.
Tennessee ran seven plays inside Florida’s 10-yard line in the game on Saturday. All seven of those plays were passes, and only one of those resulted in a completion. And that completion was a one-yard loss for John Kelly. The Vols had a drop in the end zone on one of those plays, and another resulted in an interception.
That wasn’t the only time in the game that play-calling cost the Vols. Tennessee needed just three yards to pick up a crucial first down in the third quarter, but they elected to call a pass play to Ethan Wolf a yard behind the line of scrimmage that resulted in just a one-yard gain. The Vols were in two-deep coverage on the final game-winning throw even though both defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and Jones had to know Florida was going to chuck it deep.
The offense didn’t give running back John Kelly the ball on a hand-off at any point inside the 10-yard line, and that alone is a travesty. But they misused Kelly at other points on offense as well, including inside the red zone in general.
John Kelly had two carries inside the Gators’ 20-yard line in the second half. His lone touchdown came from 34 yards out, and he did have a carry at the Gators’ 22-yard line. Otherwise, he had just two carries in the red zone in the second half.
Kelly finished with 141 rushing yards on 19 carries and 96 receiving yards on six receptions. Yet he still wasn’t used correctly.
Not only that, but it appeared as though the Vols were playing for the tie late in the game rather than the win.
Once Kelly ran the ball from the Gators’ 22-yard line to the nine, he never got the ball again. He was targeted twice (and probably should’ve caught one of those and it would’ve been a touchdown), but Tennessee inexplicably decided to throw three straight times inside Florida’s 10-yard line with a little over a minute to play and a couple timeouts remaining.
The Vols would lose because of a Hail Mary pass that was ultimately made possible because of poor scheming and a mistake by the Vols’ secondary. But the game was lost time and time again before that by mistakes on the field and by the coaching staff.
And this game is just another example of Jones’ poor decision-making in close, must-win games.
Jones falls to just 9-12 in one-score games as Tennessee’s head coach after this loss. Jones’ squad found a way to win a one point game against Georgia Tech to start the season, but that good will was undone by the loss to the Gators.
For Jones, this is the third time he’s lost to Florida by one possession. Tennessee fell to the Gators 10-9 in 2014 and 28-27 in 2015. Now they add a 26-20 heart-breaker to that list.
Jones is just 2-5 in his last seven SEC games, and he’s now 14-19 in conference play as the Vols’ head coach. He’s lost three of his last four one-score games as Tennessee’s head coach, and that excludes the 45-34 loss the Vols suffered against Vanderbilt last season since it was a two-score deficit.
Seven of the Vols’ last nine losses have come by seven points or fewer. The lone exceptions in that are the losses to Vanderbilt and Alabama last season. Otherwise, losses to Florida this year, South Carolina and Texas A&M last year, and Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma in 2015 have all come by one score.
Butch Jones can still rewrite the narrative being written about him right now. But as the games pile up, the likelihood of that happening seems smaller and smaller. And more and more, Jones is proving he’s not the coach you want in close, big game situations.