A bit of historical perspective, which may help explain why these last two losses have registered beyond a 10 on the pain scale.
In his 17 years on the sideline, Phillip Fulmer's Vols lost a game in which they led by two possessions six times:
- 1994 at Mississippi State: led 21-7 third quarter, lost 24-21
- 1995 at Florida: led 30-14 second quarter, lost 62-37
- 1999 at Arkansas: led 24-14 third quarter, lost 28-24
- 2001 vs Georgia: led 14-3 first quarter, lost 26-24
- 2001 SEC Championship vs LSU: led 17-7 second quarter, lost 31-20
- 2006 vs Florida: led 17-7 third quarter, lost 21-20
Other than the first one, a game in which Todd Helton was the starting quarterback, you've got the who's who of heartbreaking losses. Rightfully so, considering not only the way the games were lost but the talent of the Tennessee teams that fell on those Saturdays. And in at least half of these cases, the quality of the opponent should be considered. Both of those Florida teams would play for the national title; obviously LSU won the SEC title.
But note this: in 17 years, Fulmer's Vols never blew a two possession lead in the fourth quarter.
Derek Dooley's teams blew a pair of two possession leads: a 13-3 second quarter lead on Oregon in 2010, and a 28-14 third quarter lead on Missouri in 2012. Those 2010 Ducks went on to play for the national title; those 2012 Vols were a week away from saying goodbye to their coach. Dooley's Vols never blew a two possession lead in the fourth quarter, though there were few of them to blow.
Butch Jones and Team 118 jumped on Georgia 10-0 in the first quarter last year before ultimately falling 35-32. His other blown two possession leads all went into the fourth quarter.
So before Butch, if Fulmer never did it, how far back do we have to go to find the last time the Vols blew a two possession lead in the fourth quarter? In 1990 at Auburn, in a battle of top five teams, the Vols led 26-9 in the fourth quarter but walked away with a 26-26 tie. To find a loss, you have to go all the way back to 1986. The Vols led Army 21-7 in the fourth quarter, but lost 25-21 thanks in part to a blocked punt. I'm told this is the first game I ever attended, at five years old. So for me and many of us, this is a new experience. It's not all hyperbole when we say it's never hurt like this before.
Tennessee hadn't blown a two possession lead in the fourth quarter in almost 30 years. Butch Jones has done it three times in the last dozen games.
- 2014 vs Florida: led 9-0 fourth quarter, lost 10-9
- 2015 vs Oklahoma: led 17-3 fourth quarter, lost 31-24 2OT
- 2015 at Florida: led 27-14 fourth quarter, lost 28-27
If you're looking for good news, let's start here: this is a new thing for Butch too. Jones had never blown a two possession lead in the fourth quarter before doing it against the Gators last year. He'd only blown a pair of two possession leads ever, both at Cincinnati (17-7 on Louisville in 2012, 14-0 on Fresno State in 2010, both in the second quarter).
But it has now happened painfully enough for the head coach to consider making some changes.
"We're close," is the false narrative. When you're up two possessions in the fourth quarter on a ranked team and a talented rival, you're not close. You're there.
Last year was about being close
. I don't say that in a vacuum where you're not allowed to be close in year three. I say it because being close and blowing leads are two very different things. The Vols aren't getting beat by better teams. The Vols are getting beat by the Vols, and that definitely includes the coaching staff in these last two losses.
So the conversation about youth is irrelevant, not because the Vols are old, but because Tennessee's youth is good enough to win right now.
So in part, the hardest work is already done. The Vols should have every chance to win going forward because they've got the players to win. The biggest change Tennessee needs right now is a coaching adjustment in how the Vols finish games.
And in part, that's the easiest work to do. It doesn't require anything other than Butch Jones to make a change. But because being a coach at a major college program seems to require a certain amount of ego and confidence, it can also be the most difficult work to do. As we showed, this is a new problem for Butch Jones. He doesn't have a lifetime history of blowing games, but he absolutely has a trend right now. Some of it is play calling, sure, but my problems with Mike DeBord's game yesterday were specific (the third down call to Dobbs leading 27-21) as opposed to the more general issues with Oklahoma. Tennessee had five possessions with a chance to take a three possession lead in the second half on Oklahoma. The Vols only had two such possessions yesterday, getting a field goal and then a Josh Dobbs fumble on the second play of the drive.
The Vols did unleash a 16 play drive with only three passes when leading 20-14. It was conservative, but it worked. However, it worked in large part due to individual efforts from Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd. This was a physical football game with plenty of talent flying to the ball on both sides. The Vols had a chance to win because they finally have players capable of making plays to win a game like this again. Could the play calling have been a little more imaginative to take some pressure off Dobbs and Hurd? Maybe. Tennessee averaged 5.99 yards per play against Florida. Only Georgia and Alabama did better than that against the Gators last year. But I don't know how many of Tennessee's plays were designed to be explosive. Through four games the Vols have just 15 plays of 20+ yards, that's 95th nationally. Meanwhile you can also argue conservative calls are killing the Vol defense on fourth down, where the Vols have given up an absurd nine conversions, dead last in college football.
I think an important percentage of it goes back to the idea of being one play away. Because hey, instead of being satisfied coaching to win or lose by one play, why don't we start coaching to win by 30?
An adjustment is needed from Butch Jones and his staff. Do they have the recognition and humility for it? It's so easy as words on a screen, but often difficult for previously successful (as Jones was at Central Michigan and Cincinnati) coaches to change. But it is ultimately a sign of not just maturity, but success itself. None of us can do it the same way forever. You grow or you lose.
This is a new and painful problem, for Butch Jones and Tennessee. To make it different, it will require something new from the coaching staff.
But I think if they can learn how to make that adjustment, Butch Jones and the Vols can stop being one play away and start winning. Big.