Most of Vol Nation knew that 2017 was going to be a make or break year for head coach Butch Jones and the Vols.
Jones is practically on his way out of Knoxville after five straight losses to SEC opponents - including devastating losses to South Carolina and Kentucky.
By now it seems as if the writing is on the wall for Jones, but AD John Currie has yet to make any type of statement regarding the future of Jones or the program. As expected, this has left gaping holes of speculation as to what will/or needs to happen next for Tennessee.
The RTT staff offers their opinions and desires for what they hope to see in the coming future.
What has contributed the most to the disappointment of the 2017 season?
Evan: I’ll fire the first shots here. It’s not that tough to nail down the main cause of this disatrous season. Last year it was a slew of injuries with errant coaching sprinkled on top, but in 2017 the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff.
Tennessee is arguably worse in year five than year one of the Jones era and they “supposedly” have more talent. This is offically Jones’s team. He is no longer playing with the scraps that Derek Dooley left behind and nothing has improved foundation-wise since Jones took over.
The lack of player development shows that if any starters go down - which has been the norm during Jones’s tenure - then the Vols are screwed when it comes to bringing in players off the bench. This has reared it’s ugly head in 2017 and we are all paying the price for it.
Noah: As my colleague Evan pointed out, this is Butch Jones’ team. These are the guys he put in place and the talent is certainly there, which is what what make this season all the more disappointing.
There may not be another coach in the country that has dealt with more injuries than Butch Jones, and this isn’t a new development. This is something that has plagued Jones’ teams throughout his tenure. By now, Jones and his staff should be able to prepare his players to come in and produce on the field with the “next man up” mentality. Unfortunately, that has not been the case this season.
That all being said, injuries and lack of development are not totally the causes of this year five decline. We all know that Jones’ coaching decisions have played a factor in many of his losses at Tennessee. Sometimes, the other team is just better (see Alabama), but in many cases in the last five years, Tennessee has had every opportunity to win more ball games but did not take advantage.
In 2015, his decisions were ultimately responsible for losses to Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas. In 2016, when a trip to Atlanta and a Sugar Bowl birth were on the line, Tennessee collapsed down the stretch to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, two teams they should have beaten. Fast forward to 2017, and we’ve seen it happen again versus Florida, South Carolina and most recently Kentucky. Add in near losses to UMass and Georgia Tech and it’s clear that Butch’s coaching decisions late in games have contributed to the Vols snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
These things shouldn’t be happening in year five, but they are and this time it might cost Tennessee a shot at the postseason.
Conner: The most disappointing and frustrating thing about this season has been the rapid descent.
Tennessee began the season with a thrilling, double overtime victory over a good Georgia Tech team. Everything about that game certainly was not perfect, but it was fun.
It’s been all downhill from there. It seems as though Tennessee has hit a new low with each opponent from UMass to Kentucky. There was a chance following the Georgia game to go ahead and get rid of Butch Jones and try to salvage this season. And I believe if the move had been made, Tennessee would be sitting at 5-3 rather than 3-5.
Now, the Tennessee football program is nothing short of toxic and is staring down the barrel of a season which will end with a losing record and no bowl game.
Terry: Just to echo everyone else’s comments, the lack of overall talent development is easily the most frustrating thing here. To see top teams lose several key players every year, but still be able to contend yearly proves that it can be done.
To be fair, I think everyone expected a little falloff, but to go 3-5 and 0-5 in the SEC is ridiculous and unacceptable. For a guy that came in touting a “brick by brick” mentality, that foundation of talent that he built sure did collapse quickly. In year five, Tennessee shouldn’t be rebuilding. This roster was simply not ready to compete at a high level.
Another frustration of mine in this year particular has been the lack of in-season growth. This team makes the same mistakes weekly in the redzone. They’re undisciplined and it’s cost them some games. I realize that Tennessee is relying on plenty of youth, but at some point you’ve got to see some improvement. We haven’t. It’s like watching groundhog day every Saturday.
Evan: Like Terry said, the coaching malpractice has reached such a low point that the staff is completely incapable of making any type of in-game adjustment. The staff has nuked this season.
Where do the Vols go from here and who would you like to see Tennessee hire as their head coach?
Conner: Butch Jones is obviously going to be fired, although it now appears that may not happen until the end of the season. Honestly, a lot of things seem to have lined up indicating Tennessee is in serious talks with Jon Gruden.
Gruden became the betting favorite at +250 on Friday. On Sunday, it was reported Tennessee had offered Gruden $10 million per year. And on Monday, it came out that ESPN might not have the financial ability to renew its Monday Night Football contract past 2021. I think the odds of Gruden being Tennessee’s next head coach are much higher than I would have ever imagined.
That said, Gruden is not my top choice. He has never been a college head coach and has been out of coaching entirely for nearly a decade. I think Chip Kelly, Gary Patterson, Scott Frost or Matt Campbell would kill it at Tennessee.
Terry: There’s clearly some sort of holdup on Currie’s end. We’ve seen Tennessee beat guys say that it’s not a matter of if, but when. As I wrote this weekend, I would have already ended things by now, but it’s clear Currie has a plan.
You have to think Currie is working behind the scenes already. We’ve already seen a report on a Gruden offer. I think Tennessee will (and maybe already has) swing away on Gruden, but again — it’s a matter of whether or not he’ll leave his cushy ESPN job. As Conner said, he’s no sure thing either. This is a different atmosphere and the demands are totally different. I just hope their (reported) pursuit of him doesn’t drag on and cost them a shot at another big name.
I’ll say this. I think Tennessee has to go the proven route. I don’t think they can afford to take another shot at a mid-major type. After Dooley and now Butch, that would be a hard sell to a starved fanbase. They’ve got a golden opportunity to swing away and make a splash. The program is in much better shape than it was in 2013 talent-wise, so attracting a name might be a little easier this time around.
Assuming the Gruden thing doesn’t pan out, I think you’ll see Tennessee go after a Gary Patterson, Mike Gundy type. Chip Kelly seems to fit that mold, but we’ve yet to really hear his linked with this job. There’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to land any of these, but I think they’ll start here at least.
Noah: While the odds of Jon Gruden finally coming to the Hill have never been higher, I have to say that I’m still skeptical that it will happen. I think he definitely isn’t a bad choice given his accolades in the NFL, his ability to coach QBs, and his name alone—but he is a liability. Like Conner mentioned, he hasn’t coached in college before, let alone a major SEC program, and he hasn’t even coached in any capacity for nearly a decade. I don’t think Tennessee can afford the risk, but if it does happen it will generate a lot of excitement around the program for sure.
As far someone I’d like to see take over the reigns, there a few names out there that I think would take advantage of the resources Tennessee has and just the name brand it carries with it. Chip Kelly is a proven commodity, and despite his lack of success in the NFL and his unenthusiastic view of college recruiting, he is one of the few coaches available right now that could come in and have immediate success in Knoxville.
Scott Frost may not be as ‘sexy’ of a pick as Kelly or Gruden, but this is a guy that is going to be coaching in the Power 5 next season. He has done wonders at UCF and is steaming towards an America Athletic Conference title and a New Years Six Bowl in only his second season in Orlando. Granted, he doesn’t have a ton of head coaching experience (only his second season overall) but he took over a UCF team in 2016 that was 0-12 the year before. They’ll be going bowling for the second straight season and may even been undefeated come December.
Frost is a Nebraska alum and the job in Lincoln is most likely going to be open by the end of the season, but expect Florida and others to make a run at him and possibly even land him. It’s paramount that Tennessee joins in on this search soon.
Evan: As for what Tennessee needs to do in-house concerning 2017, I believe - and I hate to say this - that the Vols need to clean house with the exception of Robert Gillespie. Running back is the only position on the team that has shown consistent improvement.
It’s not the most popular decision, but keeping Butch Jones on staff is the right call in the long run. Firing him now only creates a negative perception of a first-year AD (trigger happy, maybe?) and frankly, I don’t think any of the assistant coaches will make a difference in how this team performs on a week to week basis.
It would be impossible to sell this program with Jones at the helm in 2018, so he is as good as gone at this point.
In a perfect world, I’d love to see Tennessee back the truck up to Chris Petersen’s front door and just open the cash floodgates. But Petersen is a guy who likes to stay under the radar, and coaching at Tennessee is anything but an under-the-radar program.
So, my guy has to be Dan Mullen. Even though I think he is Florida’s next coach, I would love to have him on Rocky Top. He has shown the ability to develop players and win in the SEC - as well as win big games when they matter. If UT could pull this hire off, they would be in great shape for the 2018 season.
Will the reluctance to fire Butch Jones hurt the 2018 recruiting class?
Evan: I don’t think it will - for the most part. It seems to me that the reason that certain recruits have already jumped ship is because they know that Jones is gone after this year and they are waiting to see who UT lands.
I mean, do you really think Brendan Harris is going to go to Vandy?
Now there may be a couple of recruits that decide to go another route based off UT’s future hire, sure, but the majority of kids will be in Knoxville come 2018.
Conner: I think it already has. Like Evan points out, several players have already decommitted. Cade Mays posted a picture of him in a Clemson uniform last weekend. Alontae Taylor is taking an official visit to Georgia.
The longer Tennessee waits to get rid of Jones, the less time recruits have to see what the situation will be like at UT going forward and the more likely they are to pick another school.
And as an aside, I firmly reject the notion that Jones is an elite recruiter and that another coach can’t do as well or better. Jones has had several good classes, yet Tennessee has no depth in his fifth year. It’s due partly to injuries - of which Tennessee has suffered an unruly amount under several strength and conditioning coaches - but more so to the fact that Jones has run off many of his players. Jalen Hurd, Vic Wharton, Venzell Boulware and Preston Williams are just some of the highly-touted recruits under Jones to leave Tennessee.
Any coach who comes in here will recruit well. Tennessee has a storied tradition and some of the best facilities in the country. But UT needs to get the next coach so the recruits can know what they’re signing up for.