For the second year in a row, Tennessee has followed a big bowl win by announcing the departure of a coordinator, as a Wednesday afternoon press release reported that the Vols and defensive coordinator John Jancek have "mutually agreed to part ways."
The Vols had taken a big step forward this year in scoring defense, riding significantly improved red zone play, but despite returning eight starters (not including Curt Maggitt, who missed 11.5 games this season with injury) from the 2014 unit, the step was not as complete as Vols fans might have hoped. Going into the bowl game, Tennessee's 2015 defense was worse than their 2014 counterparts from a yards-per-play perspective, and that's despite having three of the five worst offenses in the country on the schedule. Advanced stats agree that 2015 was not the year that Vols fans expected on defense, as Tennessee's Defensive FEI rating dropped from #38 in 2014 to #50 in 2015, and their Defensive S&P+ dropped from #12 to #18 [note: I find the drive-based FEI ratings to comport with the eye test much better than play-based S&P+, but your mileage may vary.] And late game defense continued to be a struggle. There were five instances this year in which the Vols defense came onto the field in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter trying to protect a one-score lead. They allowed an average of 65 yards on those five possessions and never forced a turnover on downs (3 TDs, 1 forced fumble, one clock expiration). Despite having late leads in each contest, the Vols went just 2-3 in those five games.
So a defense that was primed to leap forward this year didn't. Couple that with persistent rumors about Jancek looking at other jobs, and it's not a shock to see the Vols and Jancek part ways. The question now becomes one of whether the Vols can upgrade. Last year, Tennessee parted ways with Mike Bajakian and replaced him with the extremely unpopular (but extremely familiar to Butch Jones) Mike DeBord. But that was offense, and this is defense. Butch Jones is an offensive coach, and ability to work directly with Jones' offense will always factor in his hires on that side of the ball. On defense, he is more apt to turn things over to an assistant, which makes it more likely [note: "more likely" does not imply "objectively likely"] that we see a hire from outside Jones' circle of past coworkers.
A week ago, there were rumors aplenty pointing to Penn State's Bob Shoop, who has consistently churned out top defenses in his past five seasons under James Franklin at Vanderbilt and PSU. But Shoop is currently working under a three-year contract that pays close to a million dollars. Jancek, DeBord, and Bajakian all had two-year contracts worth no more than $505,000. If Tennessee is going to make a hire on Shoop's level, they are going to have to open the checkbook to a degree that we have not seen since hiring Sal Sunseri [note: yes, Sunseri's contract was the richest of any Tennessee assistant since Monte Kiffin left. No, I'm not making this up.].
Whoever comes in will have a lot to work with. The Vols graduate just three starters from the 2015 starting defense, and unless Jalen Reeves-Maybin enters the NFL draft early, they will still have five front seven starters from the 2014 team, to say nothing of talented freshmen like Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, and Darrin Kirkland Jr. With an offense returning nearly intact (ten starters return from the 2015 opening day starting lineup), Tennessee will be the trendy pick to win the SEC East next season, and with only three opponents who expect to start the 2016 season in the top 25, the Vols could make a run at the college football playoff. There's plenty to attract an elite coordinator, if Tennessee is willing to pay for one. So the question remains: is Tennessee willing to get into the mix for elite assistants?