It’s been 3 years since Tennessee bought out Butch Jones’ contract with Cincinnati. Three years of top 15 recruiting classes, three years of improving records from 5-7, to 7-6, to 9-4. Three years of preseason hype followed by losses that make fans’ hopes rise, but hearts break. There was that Pig Howard fumble at the goal line for a 31-34 loss to Georgia in overtime in 2013, those consecutive losses to Florida and Georgia by a combined four points in 2014, and every loss in 2015, which consisted of a double-overtime loss to #19 Oklahoma, a one-point loss to Florida, a four-point loss to Arkansas, and a five-point loss to the eventual national champions, Alabama. After three years of work, he has the recruiting classes, he has the experienced players, he has the Power Five conference football program, and he even has the not-so-formidable schedule to help him out. Only one real question remains about Butch Jones as a head coach, and it is now set to be answered this year. How far can Butch Jones take the Tennessee football program?
Can Butch Jones end the 9-year losing streak against Tennessee’s arch-rival Alabama?
That game will be played at Neyland Stadium, in front of their passionate fan base. Barring injury, they’ll have the senior quarterback, Joshua Dobbs with 24 starts under his belt, against a quarterback yet to be determined by Nick Saban and the staff who will have a total of six options. Tennessee’s defensive line of juniors and seniors will be playing against Alabama’s offensive line of sophomores and freshmen. Again, barring injury, almost every player that starts for Tennessee will have played in that five-point loss to Alabama last year. Alabama still has its vaunted defense, running back Bo Scarborough, and some of the best coaching in the nation, but if everything holds through the first six games, there has been no better opportunity for Tennessee to defeat Alabama in the nine years since it last did so.
Can he win an SEC Championship and make the CFB Playoffs?
If he can defeat Alabama, the road to the SEC Championship is one of the least formidable in the SEC. Non-conference home games against Appalachian State and Ohio, as well as a neutral site game at Bristol Motor Speedway against Virginia Tech, give them a manageable 3-0 record out of the gate. The only real threat to that will be Virginia Tech, who’s coming off a 7-6 season and still trying to find a starting quarterback.
The next four games will determine the path of their season, at home against Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and at home against Alabama. Florida will be a difficult game against a tough defense, but they’re also looking for a quarterback (none of their quarterbacks have ever thrown a pass for Florida), and the game will be played at Neyland. Georgia will be their first difficult road game, but they will be facing a new head coach, Kirby Smart. Georgia is also young on offense but very talented and has a quarterback that won ten games last year in Greyson Lambert. Georgia is very experienced in the secondary on defense, and Smart is a defensive coach. This game will be a grind and a test for Tennessee. the road game against Texas A&M will be their “trap game,” with a quarterback in Trevor Knight who went 11-4 last year at Oklahoma, and a coach fighting to keep his job in the midst of off-the-field drama in Kevin Sumlin. Alabama has already been discussed above.
All four of those will be tough games, but after them, Tennessee has the easiest four game schedule a team could compile in the SEC, and an FCS school they will soundly defeat. Ending the year at South Carolina, at home against Tennessee Tech, at home against Kentucky, at home against Missouri, and finishing off at Vanderbilt is a schedule that even Cincinnati, the program he left, could reasonably go undefeated against. Mark my words, if Tennessee is 7-0 on October 16, 2016, they will go undefeated through the regular season. Those middle four games will be tough, and I expect them to at least be 3-1 in the Florida, Georgia, A&M, Alabama matchups, but could there be an easier route to the SEC Championship? If he gets there and wins, it’s a virtual guarantee Tennessee will be in the CFB Playoffs… How far can they go? Every piece is in place for Butch Jones to answer the question every Tennessee fan is asking, “How far can Butch Jones take this program?”
So Tennessee fans, as you sit at #10 on the recently released Amway College Top 25 Coaches Poll, kick back and enjoy. You’re about to see the full potential of what your athletic director Dave Hart bought out of Cincinnati 3 years ago. Whether Tennessee has the next great coach in the SEC, or just one in the series of coaches trying to bring the “Power T” back to prominence, everything is in now in place. You will know which of these he is at the end of this year, which is why, for Tennessee fans I would call it, “The Year of Butch Jones.”
Photo courtesy of Jason Yellin.