Two years ago after Tennessee blew a 13-point fourth quarter lead at home to the Oklahoma Sooners, head coach Butch Jones had this to say about the loss:
JONES: We have to start learning how to close games out. We were one play away and we have to close it out.— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) September 26, 2015
Two years later, he is still trying to figure this out, and to the added dismay of myself and others, the Vols actually seem to be getting worse at closing out games.
Not only did Tennessee find more ways to blow close games in 2015, but they also failed to close out three other games in 2016 as well.
In his first two seasons, the Vols were .500 in games decided by one possession or less. Since 2015, the Vols are 5-7 in such games.
More importantly, he is 3-7 in his last ten games against SEC opponents with at least 6 wins.
Jones is usually the scapegoat - sometimes rightfully so, sometimes not - of just about every close loss the Vols have had since he arrived. Whether it be poor in-game management, poor play-calling, poor clock-management, or any other type of scenario; Tennessee players, alumni, and fans have had to endure through it all.
There are plenty of moments that come to mind when thinking about bad decisions made during Jones’s tenure.
The decision to put in Alvin Kamara on 3rd and goal from the Oklahoma one-yard line in 2015. The decision not to go for the two point conversion against Florida in 2015. The decision to start Jalen Hurd after Kamara set the record for the most all-purpose yards in a game.
And most of these decisions, or lack thereof, have resulted in UT losing games that they should have won.
As a dedicated fan, it’s hard to stomach these situations and keep a positive outlook for the future. But in the context of a growing team - which was the main trait of UT at the time - these results could be accepted
But not anymore. Not after this most recent loss to the Florida Gators.
In case you’ve been living under a limestone rock, it’s hard to avoid the catastrophic recaps and replays of the 47th meeting between the Vols and Gators.
The loss was filled with inexplicable moments. One of our writers, Conner Knapp has eloquently stated most of the miscues that haunted the Vols in his column earlier this week.
The bottom line is that Jones found a way for the Vols to lose, and in your fifth year, that is unacceptable. No longer should we be handing out wins to lesser teams.
Now, to the disappointment of many, there won’t be any jersey-burning embeds, illogical claims, or tweets demanding that Jones be fired, however I can assure you that the man already has one foot out the door.
Every single roster move, every practice schedule, and every play call will now be under intense scrutiny. It is starting to appear as if all of the questions surrounding his ability as a head coach are coming to fruition.
So has Butch Jones hit rock bottom? I believe he has.
Fans still have the sour tastes in their mouths from the disappointing finish in 2016 that saw Tennessee blow a guaranteed trip to Atlanta and a Sugar Bowl bid with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
And from the looks of things this year, those games won’t be much easier.
Both teams have shown marked improvement so far in 2017, with Kentucky right behind. All of a sudden, a mediocre SEC East looks to be much tougher than anticipated.
Therefore, based off of the recruiting success and the influx of coaching talent - Shoop, Warren, and Hoke to name a few - the Vols should be right up there with the aforementioned teams, if not above them.
Yet here we are discussing the potential fact that Tennessee could lose to all three teams and finish at the bottom of the barrel in the SEC East.
Just look at the jump Vandy has made. Two years ago, they couldn’t even beat a ranked team. As of this past week, they are 2-0 in consecutive games against ranked opponents. In comparison, UT is currently 0-3 against ranked teams.
Chew on that for a moment.
The marked improvement comes from Vandy’s defense. And who runs this unit? The one, the only, head coach Derek Mason.
Mason got off to the worst start imaginable for a head coach when Vanderbilt was blown out by Temple during their home opener in 2014. Now, his team is a dark horse candidate to make the trip to Atlanta come December.
Vandy’s defense is tightly run, disciplined, and they know the system. I was at the Kansas State game and all they did was fly to the ball, adjust, and make plays.
When compared to Butch’s offense it is a night and day difference.
Tennessee has yet to find a true identity on offense, evidenced by their slow start in just about every single game since the beginning of the 2016 season. In 2016, the Vols were outscored 106-80 in the first quarter of games and over a quarter (21) of those points came in the Tennessee Tech game.
On offense they look out of place, mismatched, and simply lost at times. At first, one had to think that this was a product of former offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, but now it is painfully clear that Jones holds all responsibility for the offensive system that is in place.
Jones still has support where it matters the most based off of recent comments from AD John Currie, but what do you expect Currie to say in this situation?
As a program, this is where the Vols currently stand: Year five of a regime that is still seeking improvement while the others around them are improving at a much quicker pace.
Oh, and these teams are also beating Tennessee with less talent and experience.
There is only one person that can save this season now, and it’s Jones. There are still nine games to go and anything can happen, but if he couldn’t win this weekend, then the question has to be when will he win these games?
In this instance, there is no way to go but up. And when you are looking up, you are at the bottom.
Here’s to hoping the Vols can find a way back to the top.