The past two weeks have not been fun for Vol fans. They were subjected to not just one fourth quarter meltdown on a national stage, but two collapses in a two week span against Tennessee's biggest opponents of the season thus far. Fans have cried out against Tennessee's coaches for mishandling those two games, and for good reason. But the faults of the coaching staff through the first month need not doom the entire season; the year is just four games old, and there is plenty of time to right the ship before the Vols are in deep water.
For one, this staff has had a history of overcoming slow starts to finish the year strong, both at Tennessee and at other universities. While at Central Michigan, Jones and his staff twice made up for bad starts by finishing the year strong. In 2007, the Chippewas began 1-3 before finishing the season 8-6, including a win in the MAC Championship game. The very next year, Jones and his staff started out 2-2 with the Chippewas before winning 6 straight games and finishing the year 8-5. Even Jones' 2009 Central Michigan squad opened up the season with a loss before a 12-2 season that ended with a MAC Championship and a bowl victory over Troy.
Even last season with the Vols, Jones and his staff were able to salvage a season after beginning 2-3 and dropping all the way to 3-5. The Vols won three of their last four regular season games and defeated Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl to finish 7-6. Butch Jones is 35-23 all-time in the months of October and November and has improved so far in each season at the helm of the Vols, going 2-5 in 2013 and 4-4 last season. This weekend's game against Arkansas will be the Vols' first crack at an opponent in the most pivotal two months of the season, and it only gets tougher from here.
Are the decisions made by the coaching staff troubling to this point? Yes. I've covered that in length this week following the disappointing loss to the Florida Gators last weekend. But Vol fans need hope, and while it is easier to believe this staff won't correct their ways, history has shown that Butch Jones-led teams tend to thrive later in the season rather than wither.
The biggest issue for the Vols this season, coaching aside, has been a lack of offensive identity. The Vols have tried to be an up-tempo, fast-paced offense at times while also trying to be a ball-control, ground-and-pound rushing offense. Tennessee has to find their identity on offense, and this staff, whatever your opinion of them is, isn't stupid. Jones hasn't made it into his ninth year as a head coach by being stubborn and closed to change. Jones has altered his offense before, most notably at Cincinnati when he switched to a two-quarterback approach. And it worked. Last season Jones and his staff molded the offense when Joshua Dobbs took over at quarterback, and it paid off in big dividends. This staff isn't beyond undergoing a mid-season makeover.
This team needs something drastic to occur in order to save this season from becoming a disaster. At 2-2, the Vols are on a dangerous precipice and need to be pushed in the right direction in order not to fall off into another mediocre season. Jones and his staff must learn from their mistakes and change their philosophy, and quickly, if the Vols are to fulfill their goals of contending in the SEC East this season. This is still a young team, yes, but it's not any younger than a good portion of the teams they have played and will play this season. Youth and inexperience aren't an excuse any more, and it's time the Vols found a rhythm on both sides of the ball. But the offense needs a change more than the defense, and it starts with the coaching staff.
Can Jones and his staff change their ways and save the season? They certainly possess the ability to. Now they just have to do it.