All the other questions about Butch Jones are, at this point, non-existent. No matter what we may or may not have said last December when he was hired, our faith in continuing to simply be here and support the Vols through difficult times has already been rewarded on the recruiting trail, and then some. If Butch Jones had commitments from even half of the dozen four and five star kids he's lined up to play for the Vols next year, we might have called that a success. But the Vols enter the 2013 season trailing only Alabama in Rivals' recruiting rankings, two dozen commitments deep and we're not quite done yet.
Butch Jones has answered questions about recruiting. He's answered questions about his ability to rally the alumni. You're always going to get the Peyton Mannings and Inky Johnsons. Butch Jones brought Arian Foster back to the program and brought in a host of others like Jamal Lewis that we don't always see a lot of. Butch Jones has connected with current and future Hall of Famers, and past lettermen who simply gave their all for Tennessee.
And Butch Jones has answered questions about dealing with the fanbase. He's in front of the people and is at least pretending to enjoy it if not actually enjoying it. His work with the new uniforms has drawn overwhelmingly positive reviews because even the blue hairs can't deny his overwhelmingly positive impact on the program thus far. I'm so eager to hear the way he comes across on the postgame radio show. And he brought more people to the Orange & White Game than Dooley or Kiffin even though change isn't new anymore, then had 39,000 show up to a practice - not a scrimmage, a practice - in a brand new and overwhelmingly positive gesture.
In nine months Butch Jones has done almost everything right, with tangible results and an intangible feeling that stuff's getting better. Only the most important question remains: can he win football games?
The good news here is, it's a deeper question than the one we asked our last two hires. This question really is, "Can Butch Jones win in the SEC?" Because we know he can win football games.
We all know the answer to this question is going to take time, and we fully expect Tennessee fans to be as patient, if not more so, than we were with Derek Dooley in Year
Zero One. Dooley got additional grace because Lane Kiffin's departure rallied us all together. Butch will get additional grace because of his recruiting class.
But we also know, as has been well documented here, first year coaches that go on to be successful in the long-term tend to spring a big upset in the short-term far more often than not. Tennessee is aching and is frankly due for the big win that makes you believe, the one Derek Dooley could never quite get, the one that made Lane Kiffin's departure so much harder because he beat Georgia and South Carolina by a combined 44 points.
Butch Jones comes to us with twice as much experience as a head coach than Derek Dooley had, and almost three times as many wins. Central Michigan and Cincinnati don't fall into the same major program category that play schedules conducive to getting big wins early, but Butch did win the MAC his first year at Central Michigan and ultimately got the program-defining win for the Chippewas by beating Michigan State in Year Three. At Cincinnati Butch Jones almost beat #6 Oklahoma in Year One before the wheels came off in a 4-8 campaign. But that was a unique situation following an undefeated season under Brian Kelly. In Year Two Cincinnati beat NC State by 30 points, and in Year Three the Bearcats beat Virginia Tech on a neutral field. Butch Jones has taken programs to new heights (and of course, won championships) by beating multiple teams who were playing on a higher level than his own.
I'm not sure it's been talked about a lot, but Butch Jones is actually our most proven hire since Johnny Majors. Dooley had three years and a losing record at Louisiana Tech. Lane Kiffin had NFL experience and an awesome college resume as a coordinator and recruiter, but had never coached a college football game. And Phillip Fulmer was 3-0 with two monumental program-changing wins over Georgia and Florida that really became the reason Majors was out and Fulmer was in, but he was still just 3-0 when he took over. The program itself may be as down as it was since we hired Majors in the late 70s, but we have more tangible evidence to believe in Butch Jones at this point than any of the other hires we've made at the time we made them.
There are two goals for Butch Jones in Year One, in this order: get to a bowl game, and get a big win. Tennessee's schedule should take the bowl game question down to this: can the Vols go 3-1 against Western Kentucky, Missouri, Auburn, and Vanderbilt? Three of those games are at home, though Western Kentucky is coming next week and Tennessee may not look as sharp as we hope we will by the time the other three roll around in November. Much like Derek Dooley's first season, even if the Vols stumble against Western Kentucky - a game of enormous importance for Butch's momentum - you can still get to November with a bowl game on the table. No matter the recruiting rankings or the hype, 6-6 would still be a successful season for Butch Jones in year one, and as we know very well, life is so much better when you're playing in a bowl game, even if it's a return trip to the Music City Bowl. We haven't seen Nashville or Memphis or Shreveport or anywhere in two full seasons.
6-6 (or 7-5 if the Vols go 4-0 against those four teams) would still be a good start. But if you really want the people to jump in with both feet, Tennessee needs the one big win. Doesn't have to be Alabama or Oregon. Can Tennessee find a way to beat South Carolina or Georgia in Knoxville? Could the Vols sneak up on Florida in Gainesville? Even if the Vols struggle to be competitive in some of these games, can Tennessee be more than just competitive in one of them, but come home with victory?
Any one of the five, as long as the Vols don't trip up and subsequently miss a bowl game by going 1-3 against that other stretch (or getting stunned by Kentucky or South Alabama), would make for a tremendously and overwhelmingly successful season. If Tennessee finishes anywhere between 6-6 and 8-4 with the one big win, Butch Jones will have the people tightly secured in the palm of his hand. Failing to do so is not a guarantee of future failure. But more than what other coaches have done other places, Tennessee needs the momentum in the present moment. This summer has been amazing because we've gotten to feel like we were Tennessee again on the recruiting trail. We need that feeling to continue through this season, on the recruiting trail and in general, to keep this thing moving forward and upward.
Will it happen? Can Tennessee get to a bowl game, and will the Vols get the one big win? We're about to find out. Team 117 takes the field with a lot of grace and a lot of excitement. Let's see if Butch Jones can add a few more bricks this fall.