It was Derek Dooley who tried to sell us on Year Zero. While the rest of college football believed in Year Two, Dooley tried to change the math. Too much turnover, too much turmoil, too much ground to make up in recruiting. And we were buying it. Then the Vols demolished another Year Two coach and nevermind all that patience stuff. Then Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray got hurt. And then we had to get back together with patience after breaking up with her a few weeks earlier.
It took another year for Dooley's math to fail in full. But arguably the most impactful single day of his tenure came not in the first year of building trust or any Year Three potential payoff, but on November 26, 2011. When Tennessee lost to Kentucky, lots of things changed for Derek Dooley. The Year Two success we dreamed of after beating Cincinnati was long lost to injuries and schedule, but there was still hope to be played and fought for in the moment. But in losing to the Wildcats, Year Two went from pass to fail, and the drop was steep.
Butch Jones, as we know, is not Derek Dooley, and 2014 is not 2011 in a number of ways. Dooley created momentum by playing lots of talented freshmen in his first season. Butch has created even more momentum by signing even higher rated freshmen. Both preached the need for patience at this stage of the game, but Butch both needs and deserves it more. And he should get it.
But 2014 isn't a throwaway season where the Vols can just go whatever while the freshmen mature and still have the trust of the fanbase. As those freshmen mature, the most important thing Butch Jones can do is make progress. They don't have to be large steps, we just have to take one.
What would progress look like for Butch Jones and Team 118? In increasing order of difficulty:
- Beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt. This would be a first since 2010. Kentucky is in a similar situation to Tennessee, and should be relying on lots of freshmen while still dealing with an overall talent gap against the Vols. Vanderbilt lost significant productivity and we'll have to wait and see how much the culture will change without James Franklin. We'll know a lot more about both of these teams by the time they roll around in November, but another loss to either of them would certainly remind Tennessee fans that things haven't changed yet.
- Get bowl eligible. This too would be a first since 2010; winning a bowl game would be a first since 2007. Utah State, Arkansas State (and these two are far from free), Chattanooga, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt still only get you five. Unless we have an unlikely flameout elsewhere on the schedule, this means getting bowl eligible would require a win of consequence (other than Utah State, which will count as a win of consequence right up until the point we win it). Tennessee has to beat at least one of Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama, South Carolina, or Missouri to get to a bowl game. All seven could be ranked opponents; five of the seven could be in the preseason Top 10.
- Close the gap on elite opponents. Last year Tennessee played five teams who finished in the Top 10. The Vols beat South Carolina, but lost to the other four by a combined score of 190-50. It's not new; Dooley's 2011 squad lost to Alabama and LSU by 31 and Arkansas by 42. But one of the best ways Butch Jones can show progress is by having his guys be competitive with the likes of Oklahoma and Alabama, or at least more competitive than what we've seen in the last few years.
- Win at least two games of consequence. Last year the Vols won one. Progress requires winning a pair this fall. This is important for the narrative of the season. Even if Tennessee does get to 6-6, if they only win one game that "matters", it's going to derail or at least slow some of the momentum Butch Jones has built. For the freshmen especially, none of whom are used to losing, it would be very helpful if Tennessee can get one early. Win one of Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, or Ole Miss and give yourself something to believe in before facing Alabama and a revenge-minded South Carolina on the road in consecutive weeks. And any way you slice 7-5, it's successful. A most-likely scenario where the Vols beat, say, Florida in early October and Missouri in mid-November, both in Knoxville, would show everyone tangible growth that could be celebrated. 6-6 would be nervous progress; ask any Tennessee fan how they'd feel about that right now and they'll give you the same answer they'll give if the Vols lose six of their seven most important games this fall. But 7-5? That's clear progress with enough important wins to create enough memories to fight off the losses. 7-5 or more would reward faith at this stage of the game. 7-5 is a successful season.