In three seasons, Butch Jones’ greatest crime as Tennessee’s coach has been making good progress while flirting so heavily with great progress that good progress can sometimes feel left out.
2013 saw Jones earn the ranked victory that eluded Derek Dooley for three years when the Vols beat #11 South Carolina in mid-October. Tennessee also just missed an even bigger victory against #6 Georgia in heartbreaking fashion, then gave up a 92-yard drive in the final minutes to Vanderbilt to miss bowl eligibility by a hair.
2014 saw the Vols fully and finally transition to Josh Dobbs at quarterback, with the team responding with an epic comeback at South Carolina, the program’s first bowl appearance since 2010, and then a 45-28 rout of Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl, the program’s first bowl win since 2007. But Tennessee lost a 9-0 fourth quarter lead on Florida and fell painfully short to the Gators for the tenth year in a row.
2015 saw Tennessee beat #19 Georgia for the first time since 2009, then win six in a row to close the season including a 45-6 beat down of #13 Northwestern, the largest margin of victory in a bowl game in school history and the biggest win over a ranked team in 25 years. But all of that came after the Vols blew a 17-point lead for the first time in Neyland Stadium history in a double overtime loss to Oklahoma, a 27-14 fourth quarter lead at Florida via five fourth down conversions including the infamous 4th-and-14-turned-63-yard-touchdown, a 14-0 first quarter lead on Arkansas, and a 14-13 fourth quarter lead on Alabama with five minutes to play. Oklahoma and Alabama would make the College Football Playoff; Florida won the SEC East instead of Tennessee thanks to every last one of those fourth downs.
Butch Jones is the coach who has led and recruited Tennessee from a 40-47 run from 2008-2014 to a #9 preseason ranking in 2016, Tennessee’s first appearance in the Top 10 since 2006, making steady and irrefutable progress every season. And Butch Jones is the coach who has come up just short of doing even more, especially against Tennessee’s biggest rivals.
He is both of those things, and both are meaningful. Tennessee will be expected to make progress for the fourth year in a row this fall. And the biggest question those inside and outside Big Orange Country believe stands in the way of that progress is how Butch Jones and Team 120 - made up almost entirely of those who wear the progress and the scars of Team 119 - can make a difference in those crucial final moments in the season’s biggest games.
We’ve seen Jones and many of these players get it done in important moments, reaching all the way back to South Carolina in 2013 and working through the Gamecocks the following year and Georgia last fall. They’ve earned important victories along the way. But in their most painful losses, one of two common themes have doomed the Vols: a late, long drive allowed by the defense and/or the offense becoming completely ineffective. Butch Jones has already sought to address the former by hiring Bob Shoop to run the defense.
The 2015 Florida game is often held up as the coaching staff’s greatest sin - failing to go for two up 26-14 with 10 minutes to play, going a conservative three-and-out up 27-21 on the following drive - but I don’t think that game is most indicative of what’s most hurt Tennessee in these losses. I certainly lifted my voice among the masses in criticizing the decision to not go for two, but Tennessee’s entire gameplan against the Gators was conservative, and it would have worked plenty fine without the defense giving up five different fourth downs.
I believe the more telling case studies are the 2014 Florida game and the 2015 Oklahoma game. As we mentioned in the aftermath of the double overtime loss to the Sooners last fall, in that game Tennessee had four second half drives that featured a 1st-and-10 at the UT 44 or closer. Those series ended with a missed field goal and three punts after the Vols failed to gain more than a single yard on any of those dozen snaps. And four of those plays went backwards for a total of -33 yards. Against Florida in 2014 the Vols had seven third quarter snaps in the Gator red zone and not a single one of them gained a yard, resulting in an end zone interception and two field goals settled for in what became a 10-9 loss. The insertion of backup Gator quarterback Treon Harris got the headlines, but the sole touchdown drive he led covered only 30 yards after a Justin Worley sack/fumble. The greater cause was Tennessee’s offense simply ceasing to function. Those two games featured two different quarterbacks and two different coordinators.
The Vols have been so close but then played so poorly in crucial moments. One possible solution for Team 120? Don’t be so close.
If the Vols jump Virginia Tech or especially Florida 17-0, won’t we be fascinated to see if and how they keep their foot on the gas?
Something to keep an eye on: in Tennessee’s blowouts over FBS teams under Butch Jones, look how many include defensive or special teams play as a significant factor in the scoring:
- 2013 52-20 vs Western Kentucky: two pick sixes (five turnovers in six plays)
- 2014 38-7 vs Utah State: TD drives of 11 and 12 yards after a fumbled kickoff and an A.J. Johnson interception
- 2014 50-16 vs Kentucky: pick six, 19 yard drive after a Justin Coleman interception
- 2015 52-21 at Kentucky: Kick return TD, punt return TD, 4 yard drive after Darrin Kirkland interception
- 2015 53-28 vs Vanderbilt: Punt return TD, Safety
Also of note: the two blowouts when scoring really wasn’t affected by defense or special teams play? Both bowl games. Tennessee raced past Iowa in incredible fashion for 2.5 quarters before easing off the throttle up 42-7, and Evan Berry’s pick six for the final 45-6 margin against Northwestern came on the final play of the game. Is there an argument that the nature of those bowl games made it easier for Jones and the Vols to keep their foot on the gas? We’ve certainly seen Tennessee’s offense operate at maximum efficiency later in the game when it had to, most notably last fall when they were pushed by Bowling Green and Georgia.
You know you’re getting close when you’re nitpicking blowouts. I hope there are plenty more to dissect this fall. But for Tennessee to reach its biggest goals in 2016 - to not only make progress but win championships - the Vols have to finish well. They could do it by leaving their foot on the gas more often, ensuring the finish comes far before the final minutes. But against the best teams on the schedule when there may be no other option but a close game, the defense must stop the bleeding and the offense must continue to function.
Championship programs feature everyone - coaches and players - continuing to improve and evolve. Butch Jones knows progress incredibly well. How far that progress takes the Vols in 2016 will come down to Tennessee’s ability to finish what they started, all these years past and all these Saturdays to come.