When you see the headline "Best and worst college football coaches in close games entering 2016," you know without clicking that our beloved Butch Jones is going to be prominently featured somewhere therein, right?
Right. Jones not only makes an appearance, he's identified as the absolute worst in the SEC.
Well, of course he is. The guy's been coaching uphill since he was unceremoniously dropped into the crater carved into Shields-Watkins by the Kiffin-Dooley Demolition Crew, and uphill is hard, y'all. So yeah, Jones is 6-9 in games decided by one score or less, and he's a bless-your-heart 1-6 in one-score games against Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma, but most of those games were a painfully long two years ago. And even if you are of the considered opinion that Tennessee had finally reached level ground with Florida and Georgia last season, Alabama (national champ) and Oklahoma (playoff team) were still undoubtedly Kings of the Hill. Florida and Georgia? The Gators won the East and the Bulldogs may have fired their coach, but they did it with only three losses -- one to the national champ, one to the SEC East champ, and a close one to the Vols.
Those were good teams, is what I'm saying. And what's more, close games, by their very nature, are a bit fluky. Heck, even the article linked above concedes that undisputed heavyweight Nick Saban is only 17-14 in close games at Alabama and also notes that Gus Malzahn went from winning 12 of 13 close games early in his career to lamenting his inability to win them in 2015.
Domination in close games against good teams is not something you generally expect to see. Sure, you want to win those, and you definitely want to do better than 1-6, especially if you had the opponent on the ropes for most of the game, but Fluky Things are fickle. Ask Gus.
So what's the answer if some not insignificant part of the outcome of close games against good teams is outside your ability to control it?
How about focusing on avoiding close games altogether by keeping a safe distance from the ledge? Isn't the most credible criticism of last season not that Jones couldn't win close games, but that he and his team let games they were winning become close, and then lost them?
So let's treat close games like they have cooties and shun them like a ruthless third-grade bully. Let's not just stay far away from the ledge, let's stay far, far, far away from the ledge. It's, like, the grossest thing EVER.
Funny thing is, I think Jones is already focused on this. He and his staff and team have talked all off season about those "25 points," and it's not just bland coach speak to get tired old reporters through the summer. It's true. The team was close last year, and close was icky.
But there's hope for this year, and it doesn't all rest on the shoulders of the head coach's ability to think on his feet in the final seconds. Most of it rests on the shoulder pads of the returning players and the dividends that could result from the recurring nightmares of losing their balance while flirting with the ledge.
We noted in the opening of this year's edition of Rocky Top Tennessee that according to Bill Connelly's numbers, Tennessee could increase its points-per-game average by 5.9 (3.3 on offense and 2.6 on defense) this season. That's an extra 70 points over the course of the year, which even us lawyers recognize as being greater than 25. Put another way, if you add 5.9 points (in regulation) to every game last year, the Vols win every game. Every single game.
Yeah. Average points per game doesn't mean exactly 5.9 points for each and every game. It may mean an extra 20 against teams like Vandy and Kentucky and fewer against others.
But it does mean that it's not unreasonable to expect that Tennessee should generally have more of a cushion this season than last. And if it can avoid close games altogether, then the question of the whether the team can finish in close games matters less.
And in those games against great teams where it may still matter? Well, don't tell anyone this -- not yet -- but there's no such thing as cooties. The outcomes of close games are a mixture of both skill and luck, and we're due some luck, so don't get all weak-kneed when we do find ourselves next to the ledge through no fault of our own.
I'd rather not leave anything at all to fate and chance this season, though. So let's just have a season's worth of second-half parties, shall we?