Butch Jones’ last season as Tennessee’s head football coach will go down as the worst single season in program history. The Vols suffered their first eight loss season in school history, and for the first time since joining the SEC in 1933, Tennessee went winless in conference play.
The old saying of “you are what your record says you are” is true, but I think when it comes to the 2017 Vols, that saying is applicable more because of coaching rather than the talent on the roster and health of the program.
So did Butch Jones leave Tennessee in a better position than when he arrived prior to the 2013 season?
When Jones took over, Tennessee hadn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2007. The Vols had gone 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, and 5-7 in the five years prior to Jones taking over. When Jones was hired as head coach, the roster was in bad shape as well. He was given an offensive line full of NFL talent and some talented safeties in Brian Randolph and Ladarrell McNeil. He also had junior linebacker A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt to shore up his front seven. There were some solid play-makers on offense as well in Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane, and Pig Howard.
But most of the talent on Jones’ first roster were underclassmen such as Josh Dobbs, Riley Ferguson, Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis, Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Kendal Vickers, and others.
In retrospect, Butch Jones’ first team at Tennessee had more talent than originally thought of at the time. But most of that talent was young talent or players who didn’t fit the system that Jones wanted to run.
And that may prove to be a very similar case with Jeremy Pruitt’s first season at Tennessee.
The Vols’ roster for next season won’t be quite as young as Jones’ first roster was, but most of the talent on it and projected starters will be players with minimal starting experience. And Pruitt will have to sort through a quarterback battle among other things during his first year with the Vols.
Time will tell just how comparable the rosters are during both Jones’ and Pruitt’s first season. But from a recruiting ranking standpoint, Pruitt’s first team has more “star power” than Jones’ first team did.
But as Vol fans have been made painfully aware over the last few years, those stars mean little if those players aren’t developed.
When it comes to the health of the program overall, I pose that Tennessee football is in better shape now than it was back in 2012-13. But that might be in spite of Butch Jones, not because of him.
Tennessee had back-to-back nine win seasons before this year’s 4-8 debacle. That was the first time Tennessee had been able to do that since 2006-07. But even that accomplishment is mired in disappointment, as both the 2015 and 2016 seasons could’ve (and should’ve) been much better than the 9-4 records Tennessee ended up with.
But the point stands that Tennessee’s football program has had much more success over the past two or three years than in the five years before Jones took over.
Then there’s the fact that most Vol fans finally trust and appreciate UT’s administration now. That isn’t because of Jones, however. He wasn’t the one who revolted over the hiring of his replacement, nor was he responsible for bringing in fan favorite Phillip Fulmer to replace the suspended John Currie as AD.
Jones can’t be given credit for the events that transpired after he was fired as head coach. But Tennessee football overall, from top to bottom, appears to be in a much better position now than when Jones took over in December of 2012.
How much of that is credited to Jones himself? Most Vol fans won’t give much credit to Jones at all, and I can’t say I blame them. But regardless if Jones is to blame for the bad or thank for the good, Tennessee football is healthier as a whole now than it was five years ago in my opinion.
Butch Jones may have missed opportunities and blown chances at keeping his job, but he and his staff helped build up the roster to the point where Pruitt and his staff won’t be starting from scratch. And Vol fans feel more confident now than they have in years about the leadership at UT.
Butch Jones isn’t the only reason Tennessee football is in a better spot now than when he took over five years ago, but he did help get it there. Even if he could’ve done a better job overall of doing so.