We have spilled hundreds of words on Butch Jones and Tennessee's identity being based in risk management this season. This is not that.
The Vols parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek, and Jones parted ways with the man who has served as his defensive coordinator for the last six years, the fullness of his time at Cincinnati and Tennessee. Jancek's defenses at Cincinnati ranked 53rd, 26th, and 40th in yards per play allowed. He then took Tennessee's defense from 100th in that category in 2013 to 46th last season and 39th this year.
Tennessee's defense was tough to evaluate this season, as we wrote on Monday:
With the exception of a couple drives against Vanderbilt, Tennessee really could not have played any better in its last four games defensively. This makes you wonder how long Butch Jones has been thinking about making this move.
The games that really counted happened to come early in the season in 2015, and Tennessee's inability to hold late leads was certainly an issue against Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama. As we pointed out yesterday:
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).
By a number of measurements, Tennessee had a good defense this year. Did they have a great defense?
In those crucial moments, "yes" does not feel like the answer. It was different things at different times: Oklahoma used a 14 play drive and a 13 play drive. Florida used fourth downs, including what became the season's most important play on 4th and 14. Alabama used the Heisman Trophy winner.
However, it's also important to note in each of those games it wasn't just the defense that cost the Vols. A hyper-conservative offense couldn't gain any yardage when a single first down could have made a difference against Oklahoma. We'll go to our graves remembering the full list of what could have been in Gainesville far beyond the 4th and 14: going for two, getting out of their shell offensively up 27-21, better clock management or a made 55 yard field goal. And Tennessee did get the ball back with a chance to beat Alabama before Josh Dobbs was sacked and fumbled.
Making this move solely on 4th and 14 would be more petty than anything. The Vols were 125th nationally in fourth down conversions allowed, but third nationally in third down conversions allowed. The Vols were a Top 40 defense in yards per play allowed, but regressed in big plays this season (in part, see Maggitt, Curt): 44th nationally in sacks, 75th in tackles for loss, and only 19 turnovers in 13 games.
Whoever Tennessee hires next will not be perfect. They will be flawed. Anyone clamoring for John Chavis knows this. Bob Shoop's crew gave up 55 to the Michigan State team that got zero against Alabama. Gene Chizik's just surrendered 42.6 per game in their last three outings against NC State, Clemson, and Baylor. Tennessee will be very talented but could be rebuilding almost its entire secondary.
This is a risk. Tennessee is trading in good and it will not get perfect in return. In a year that could become the year, the Vols are making a significant change when one was not mandatory.
But one of the themes we've heard a lot in the last 24 hours is this idea:
Spoke w a number of sources today re: Tennessee. Their goal is championships. They believe bringing in a new DC is a step in that process.— FootballScoop Staff (@FootballScoop) January 7, 2016
If this idea is true, the Vols think someone else gives them a better chance to win championships. Tennessee is cashing in good and Butch is cashing in some degree of loyalty in pursuit of great. I have no doubt it wasn't easy. And if it doesn't work - if Tennessee wins fewer than 10 games next year and its defense shoulders a significant percentage of the blame - it really won't be easy. But for a team and a coaching staff that has been questioned for being too safe, and for a tenure that has so far been marked with good but not great, Tennessee made a hard, bold move yesterday showing safe won't keep them from pursuing growth. We'll have to wait til next year to see if it pays off. But the continued pursuit of greatness, even when it may have required a difficult choice, is noteworthy for Butch Jones.