It's not hyperbole, nor is it exaggeration; this weekend's game against the Florida Gators will be the biggest game in the coaching career of Butch Jones. And not just his career as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers; this game will be the biggest game of his entire coaching career to this point.
Butch Jones is no stranger to big games. He's coached in many while at Tennessee already, but he also coached in several while at Cincinnati and Central Michigan. Jones and his staff were co-champions of the Big East twice while at Cincinnati and won the MAC championship in 2009 and 2007 while at Central Michigan. In fact, Jones helped lead Central Michigan to a 29-27 victory over Michigan State in 2009 en route to a 12-2 season. But none of those games match up to the magnitude of this weekend's game. None of those games were, to use one of Jones's favorite words, as critical to Jones'S career as the game this weekend will be.
No, neither the Vols nor the Gators are ranked in the top 10 heading into this weekend's game. In fact, neither team is even ranked, marking the first time since 1955 that both teams are unranked while playing in Gainesville. But this game isn't the most important because of its national significance; it's important because of what it means for the perception around Butch Jones and the Vols.
To this point, Butch Jones has a reputation for coming up small in big games while at Tennessee. This wasn't something Jones was known for previously, but it's been a stigma that's reared its head over the last few seasons with the Vols. Yes, Jones and the Vols defeated a top 10 South Carolina team in Neyland Stadium in 2013 and took a highly-ranked Georgia squad to overtime and lost on a fluke play the week before, but that same staff and team lost an ugly game to Vanderbilt that same season when their bowl hopes rested on that game. The Vols hyped up the Florida game last season, beginning the "Checker Neyland" tradition in that very game, but fans were treated to extremely conservative play-calling and a bitter 10-9 loss to the Gators. Tennessee then failed to deliver against Missouri later that season when a win would've helped seal up a bowl game before the last game of the season against Vanderbilt. And most recently Vol fans were treated to a 17-0 lead against a ranked Oklahoma squad two weeks ago only to see that lead vanish by the end of regulation and end in a 31-24 loss in double overtime.
Butch Jones lost some fans for a time after the Oklahoma loss, and the only way to get them back starts this Saturday against the Gators. This Florida team is one of the worst Gator squads the Vols have gone up against in a very long time, and the Vols should be able to defeat them without worries. But since this is Tennessee-Florida we're talking about, it will probably be a close game throughout. But Jones has to treat this game like a must-win because it is a must-win. And not because a loss would end the season, but because a loss would lose the fans.
If the Vols lose to the Florida Gators this year, especially to this Florida Gators team, it will send Vol fans into a frenzy. The Vols are supposed to compete for the SEC East this season, and a win against the Gators will put the team in the right direction towards doing so. But a loss would start the Vols off with an 0-1 SEC record just like the last 10 seasons, and losing to this Florida team would prove that the Vols aren't ready to compete once again. Not only that, but this is essentially the make-or-break game in Butch Jones's career to this point. This is the game where Jones either proves he can win big games when the pressure is on his team or proves that he folds under pressure and calls a game too conservatively.
If Jones and the Vols defeat the Gators this weekend and end the 10-game losing streak, then he will forever be remembered as the coach who helped end the drought against the Gators. If Jones and his Vols lose, however, it will be the final nail in the coffin for some fans. Forget the fact that there will still be 8 games left in the season; if the Vols lose to the Gators this year, many fans will write off Butch Jones as just another failed coaching experiment in Tennessee.
Jones has bought himself some equity with his recruiting since taking over at Tennessee. He's won just enough games to prove that the program is moving in the right direction. But a loss on Saturday would undo so much of the work he's done, and it will all but cement his legacy as a "choker" to many Vol fans. Jones needs a win this Saturday as badly as the program does, and if he fails to get it, then the downward spiral will begin.