Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Butch Jones has attempted to rebuild the Vols' football program "brick by brick" for the last two-plus years, and Jones and his staff have been able to inject more talent into Tennessee's roster than they've seen in well over half a decade. Before the 2015 season, Tennessee fans, local media, and national media were buying in on the Vols, believing this year was the year the turnaround started for a moribund program.
What's happened instead has been mind-blowing. Really, though, it shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have paid any iota of attention to the Vols over the last decade. Tennessee has had about as bad of a history in "big games" over the last 10 years as any other team, but the majority of those defeats were because of the lack of talent on Tennessee's roster. Poor coaching certainly played its part, especially in the Derek Dooley era, but Vol fans were given hope when Butch Jones flashed potential in games against Georgia and South Carolina in his first season at the helm in 2013. But it's becoming painfully clear that those two games, along with the 2014 South Carolina game, were anomalies in Jones' tenure at Tennessee.
When Jones and his staff took over in 2013, excuses were readily available for them if the Vols looked incompetent. The overall talent pool of the team was embarrassingly low, as seen in blowout losses to Oregon, Alabama, Missouri, and Auburn. Even Vanderbilt had a more talented team than the Vols that season, and the coaching mistakes of that game were more forgivable given the lack of talent and amount of injuries the Vols suffered through before and during that game. The second season under Jones saw a more talented Vols' squad take the field, but there were still plenty of holes on the roster, most notably along the offensive line. The Vols became bowl eligible that season, but coaching issues began to rear their heads in a couple games, most notably against Florida and Missouri. But Tennessee appeared to be on the right track for their rebuilding, so many chose to count these mishaps as a product of having to coach a young team who still had limits on what they could do.
But 2015 has proven even the most devout Butch believers wrong.
This 2015 season is the most talented team the Vols have had since the Fulmer era. Tennessee will no longer be out-classed by the majority of the teams they play this season, and despite what Jones has said, this team is no longer the extremely inexperienced group they were last year. Young players are still being counted on, but even most of the second-year players have more experience than some three-year players at other schools. Coaching is now a much bigger factor than the previous two seasons. And the true colors of this coaching staff are showing.
The Vols have twice blown two-score leads through four games in 2015, and both are directly attributable to coaching. Not only did Jones and the offensive staff decide to go full-on conservative mode against Oklahoma after earning a 17-0 lead, but Jones elected to kick a field goal at Oklahoma's 1-yard line on 4th down rather than attempt to score a touchdown on Tennessee's opening offensive possession. Similarly against Florida on Saturday, Jones elected to kick the point-after rather than go for a two-point conversion when up 26-14. The PAT made it merely 27-14, meaning two touchdowns would win the game for Florida. And, predictably, that's exactly what happened.
Not only did Jones and his staff make these egregious errors, but they refuse to admit their fault and accept responsibility. After the Oklahoma game, Jones spouted "analytics" as his reasoning behind not kicking the field goal. Then when asked about why he didn't keep the offense on the field and go for two against Florida, Jones referenced a "chart" that told him and his staff to kick it. The exact quote is as follows:
We have a chart that’s pretty standard in football that maps it out. We just felt, at that stage in the game, we have great confidence in our defense of getting off the football field, allowing them to push the ball down the field. We felt very comfortable with that decision.
It wasn't until the day after that Jones took responsibility for the Oklahoma game. Even then, however, he refused to back down from his decisions, instead merely touting his "analytics" once more. Never once has Jones or any of his staff questioned their system in any losses since taking over in 2013, and it's about time they do. A system is all good and well, but truly successful coaches don't take a roster and force it to fit into a box deigned "infallible." Good coaches evolve their system to best fit the players they have on the team, tailoring it to their best players' strengths.
Even after the loss to Oklahoma, a lot of the Vol fans who jumped off the Butch Jones bandwagon stated they would get back on if the Vols were to beat Florida. But the loss on Saturday has likely ended the faith the majority of Vol fans had in Jones. If Jones would have just come out and taken responsibility from the outset, many fans who are angry at him now would be more understanding. If he and his staff had owned their mistakes, admitted they would like to have a few plays back, then fans would be more willing to listen. Instead, Jones has stubbornly refused to admit fault, and many fans are tuning out him and his staff.
If there's one thing Vol fans understand, it's that once a pattern of losing emerges, it's likely to stick around. Vol fans suffered through thinking "Surely our defense won't blow it again" en route to a 5-7 season in 2012 and repeatedly thought "This will be the week our offense breaks out of its slump" throughout a 5-7 season in 2008. The Vols have come up short in two of the four games they've played this season because of coaching, and the thought of "Surely the staff won't blow it again" is looking eerily familiar to those other patterns of thinking.
It's time to stop the gimmicks, slogans, and buzz words. It's time to stop trying to use "youth and inexperience" as a reason for Tennessee's struggles. The talent on this team is on par with just about every team the Vols will play this season, and it's time the coaches put faith in their players to go out and make plays without being micromanaged on every play. This coaching staff has run out of excuses, and they are learning quickly just how passionate this fan base is.
Can these problems be fixed? Yes. Can the coaches still change their philosophy and salvage the season? Most definitely. This season is only four games old. Not all is lost. But if this staff keeps refusing to admit their mistakes and stop making excuses, then the Vols are destined for another mediocre season.