The 2014 Volunteers were better than they had any right to be
We all know that Tennessee finished the 2014 season with a bang, thoroughly dominating a poorly prepared Iowa team in the former Gator Bowl, but the Vols were far better than they had any right to be all season. The Vols finished with a winning season for the first time since Lane Kiffin's lone 2009 season; won three conference games for the first time since 2010; and, improbably came back against South Carolina in Columbia to hand Steve Spurrier his second loss in a row to Butch Jones.
Tennessee also impressed in the advanced stats, finishing 27th overall in Bill Connelly's S&P+ and 24th in the defensive unit rankings -- the highest finish since, again, Kiffin was at the controls. The Vols struggled to the middle of the pack on offense, ending up 47th, but special teams were truly special, taking up some of the slack (15th in F+ special teams rating). Tennessee also played one of the nation's hardest schedules, losing to four teams that finished in the S&P+ top fifteen -- #2 Alabama, #5 Ole Miss, #11 Georgia, and #14 Oklahoma -- in addition to #26 Missouri, who just missed the top twenty-five.
The backdrop to this evaluation of the end of the season is the speculation that began it. Thanks largely to poor recruiting under former coach Derek Dooley and attrition from the coaching transition, the Vols entered fall camp without a single returning starter along the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. Although Tennessee had signed one of the best recruiting classes in years, head coach Butch Jones and his assistants needed their young charges to grow up quickly and provide immediate help at numerous positions, including offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, running back, defensive line, defensive back, and placekicker. The Vols returned only four starters total on offense and another five starters on defense -- among the fewest in the nation and by far the fewest in the SEC. Among the only positions the Vols didn't need immediate help were linebacker and safety, with injured players Brian Randolph and Curt Maggitt foregoing early eligibility for the NFL to return to school.
Tennessee was ranked accordingly in the preseason: #57 by Lindy's; #42 by Athlon; #45 by Phil Steele; and, unranked by the AP. The consensus preseason expectation was that the Vols would finish no better than 5-7, with numerous predictions of 4-8, and in only a very few projections finishing better than 5th in the SEC East. Taking into account Tennessee's graduating seniors and inexperienced roster, the Vols were projected to finish with bowl eligibility a mere 24% of the time. Experts predicted blowout losses to all of Tennessee's traditional rivals, along with a certain revenge game loss to South Carolina in Columbia, and a close, frustrating loss to first year Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason.
Butch Jones is better than you think
The point of recapping all of the incorrect preseason previews is not to ridicule the writers who compile them or to throw out preseason rankings as a futile effort -- rather, it is to provide the framing for a very specific argument: Butch Jones is a better football coach than you think he is. Many if not most of you would accept that Jones is a great recruiter and a solid program manager, but significantly fewer would be willing to accept that he is more than a passable tactician at the individual game level. Jones has a predilection for unconventional timeout use, overly conservative game-planning, and occasionally head-scratching offensive play-calling that drives Tennessee fans to the bare edge of sanity. Thus, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Butch Jones finished in the top quarter of all multi-year (3+) head coaches in the last decade for wins above statistical average, sandwiched in between Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech) and Steve Spurrier (South Carolina).
Bill Connelly calls this overachieving against the statistical average, "figuring out how to maneuver in tight games when neither team has a statistical advantage", or as most of us would call it, "coaching". Over his eight seasons, Jones has won an average of 0.29 games per year more than he should, given the statistical profiles of his teams. Connelly later hedges that this list may amount to statistical noise, but any list that begins at the bottom with Todd Dodge, Tedd Roof, and Phil Bennett and ends at the top with Gus Malzahn, Mark Hudspeth, and Ken Niumatalolo has enough significance to merit our attention. So perhaps when we consider Tennessee's recently concluded football season, instead of lamenting near-misses against Florida and Georgia, we should be counting our lucky stars that we didn't lose to Vanderbilt or South Carolina.
Tennessee didn't underachieve against the toughest part of the schedule
With another top ten recruiting class and the return of almost every starter from the 2014 team, there's no question that Tennessee's 2015 squad should be vastly improved. The problem is that in order to significantly improve on last year's record, the Vols will need to win more games in conference, and it's been eight long years since Tennessee had a winning record in the SEC (Phil Fulmer's 2007 team finished 6-2). There isn't an easy path to improvement without defeating more established conference foes and the Vols seemed to struggle against the meat of the conference schedule, sandwiching wins over Chattanooga and South Carolina around a blow out loss to Ole Miss and yet another loss to Alabama.
But here's the thing: if you divide the schedule into four pieces and look at how a team performed in each quarter of the schedule, it's easier to tell how the season ebbed and flowed -- whether a team improved or regressed. For example, in the graphic above, Nebraska clearly regressed over the course of the season, falling from a top twenty-five caliber team in the beginning of the season to a middle tier team, based on individual game performances. Meanwhile, Tennessee improved as the season went on, moving from a middle tier team to a borderline top twenty-five team, despite playing a tough schedule and fighting injuries. Tennessee played like a top twenty-five team against Ole Miss and Alabama -- unfortunately, both the Rebels and the Tide played like top ten teams. By looking at the snapshot of the season broken into quartiles, we can see that the Vols consistently performed well across the schedule, despite the difference in outcomes.
Where this leaves us entering 2015
The evidence from Central Michigan and Cincinnati is that Butch Jones can maintain a program, win conference championships, and recruit to the level of the conference. By looking at the advanced stats, preseason expectations, and quarterly performance reports, we can see that Jones is also a good enough tactical coach and leader to consistently win games he statistically shouldn't, outperform expectations, and keep a team focused and improving through over the course of a long season. When we play the what-if game, it's easy to say that Tennessee could have finished with a 5-7 record if not for a stirring comeback against South Carolina -- but that game is exactly the kind of game that Jones has a knack for winning despite the statistical probability against it. Similarly, if not for ill-timed turnovers against Georgia and Florida, the Vols could have finished with eight wins and a 5-3 conference record. The point is not that Tennessee should have won all three games; it's that Jones' coaching put the Vols in the position to win all three games, when the weight of preseason expectation was that none of the three should have been wins... for good and prudent reasons! Yes, Florida and South Carolina were worse teams than we expected -- but Tennessee probably should have been an even worse team! If you can outperform your own expectations so as to expect wins that would be improbable prior to the season... that's measurable improvement.
Football Study Hall's Bill Connelly and our own Mike Bratton have written to warn us against buying into the hype for the 2015 Volunteers: Don't Let expectations ruin Tennessee's 2015 before it starts and Pump the Brakes on that Big Orange Hype Train. I won't tell you that their concerns are completely unfounded -- and of course we shouldn't even become so inured to wins that anything less than dominance is met with derision -- but I'm here to tell you to embrace those expectations. Lean on the horn and open up the throttle on that hype train. Go out and buy a whole new Nike wardrobe in shades of orange, white, and gray.
There are a million variables in college football, but almost every program with sufficient talent and good coaching has a team that makes the leap from decent to good, or from good to great -- although it depends on the level of the program whether that means a berth in the Poulon Weedeater Bowl or an invitation to a National Championship Playoff game. For a Tennessee team that played like a borderline top twenty-five team all season, added a tremendous recruiting class, and most importantly, returns almost every single player of any significance from last year, 2015 will be a leap year.
Why? Because Butch Jones is better than you think he is, and he isn't satisfied.
Expect the Vols to return to national relevance this year, post a winning record in SEC play, and contend for the SEC East crown.