In the 2016 SEC, Nick Saban’s repeat national title quest and Les Miles’s “anything could happen” situation will be the top two stories to watch.
Saban could win consecutive national titles for a second time at Alabama. Miles is about to embark upon a season in which he could either win the whole enchilada at LSU or get a pink slip. (If he goes 9-3, he’ll be sweating bullets at the end of November.)
The third-biggest story in the 2016 SEC could be Ole Miss, especially if the Rebels beat Saban and Bama for a third straight season. It could be Georgia if Jacob Eason quickly rounds into form and gives Kirby Smart a huge debut season.
However, the story which — after Saban and Miles — has commanded the most interest since the end of the 2015 season is the Butch Jones drama at the University of Tennessee. The frailty of Jones’s tenure has been amplified by a bizarre press conference and lingering questions about the behavior of people throughout the football program — athletes, administrators, and Jones himself.
February was a brutal month for Jones. It’s the kind of month which is forgotten in the course of time unless two scenarios emerge:
A) A new and explosive development unmasks him as a bad actor on an Art Briles scale at Baylor.
B) Jones doesn’t win enough games.
In 2016, Jones might not occupy the hottest seat — that distinction could go to one or both of his SEC colleagues, Kevin Sumlin and Gus Malzahn. It could also belong to Charlie Strong at Texas or Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia. One can debate who sits on the hottest chair in the land.
What’s not debatable is that this is the most important season of Jones’s coaching career to date. He could break through into a higher tier of coaches if he can win at least 10 games. He could be seen as the restorative figure in the messy 21st-century existence of Vol football.
Or… he could fail.
He could slip on the banana peel in his attempt to make use of the SEC East’s most talented roster. He could fall short once again in his management of quarterbacks, a problem dating back to his days at Cincinnati with Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux (specifically in a 10-3 home-field loss to Rutgers which thwarted his grandest aspirations). If Jones goes 7-5 this season, he’s gone. His once-promising career will lie in tatters. He flirted with the University of Colorado before going to Tennessee. If he falls on his face this season, Colorado would laugh at him.
If you’re getting laughed at by Colorado football, your career won’t occupy a very good place.
Les Miles could get fired this season, but he’ll still have a national title, a national runner-up finish, multiple SEC titles, and a Sugar Bowl win.
Jones will have as many championships as Derek Dooley, the man he replaced.
It’s a fine line with Jones this year in Knoxville: On one hand, he has the talent (and the divisional placement, in a still-mediocre SEC East) to win big, more than other coaches who occupy hot seats. On the other hand, he has a smaller margin for error. An 8-4 season would save Sumlin and Malzahn at A&M and Auburn, respectively. Jones would not be 100-percent safe with the same record; he’d need Georgia and Florida to be even worse, gifting the Vols with an SEC East title.
The reality is both exciting and oppressive: Among the 128 FBS head coaches scattered across the country, the 2016 season means more to Butch Jones than any other. Clay Helton at USC is part of that conversation, as is Mark Helfrich. One could even make a case for Mark Stoops at Kentucky. However, Helton is in his first season as a permanent head coach. Helfrich has a national runner-up showing and a Rose Bowl win to his credit. Kentucky is a basketball school. Jones sits in a situation equally freighted with peril and possibility, and he lacks the accomplishments of other hot-seat-straddling peers.
How, then, will Jones sink or swim in the land of the Volunteer Navy?
In many ways, the man who holds the key to his future is not a player, but a member of his staff. He’s a man whose career can be viewed in a positive or negative way, enough to create a cloud of uncertainty and — as a result — a debate that remains hard to resolve.
How should one view Mike DeBord’s career? (DeBord is on the left in the cover image for this story, next to Lloyd Carr at Michigan.)
DeBord, the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, has a resume which can simultaneously be spun in positive and negative directions.
The positive spin: He was a national championship offensive coordinator for Carr and Michigan in 1997. He was the coordinator for the 2006 Michigan team which reached the Rose Bowl and — in the eyes of many — should have played Ohio State for the national title.
The negative spin: Michigan won primarily because of its defense in 1997 and 2006. The 1997 Wolverines didn’t allow more than 16 points in every game but one (24). Michigan’s offense scored more than 30 points only three times that season, twice against tomato-can-level opponents (Baylor, when Baylor was bad, and Indiana).
In 2006, Michigan flourished in a 47-point explosion versus Notre Dame on September 16, but the Wolverines didn’t score more than 31 points against a Power Five opponent for the next two months. They scored 34 against Indiana on Nov. 11. Michigan’s defense did the heavy lifting that season, never allowing more than 21 points to a Power Five opponent through the first 11 games of the season.
Here’s another complication tucked inside the DeBord dossier: His best game as a coordinator at Michigan (either in the late 1990s or in his return engagement several years later) was a loss. Michigan scored 39 in Columbus against Ohio State in the 2006 epic — one of the best editions in the long and storied history of The Game — but the Buckeyes scored 42. After depending on the defense for most of the 2006 season, Michigan got all it could have wanted from DeBord and his players in a moment of truth, but Troy Smith torched Michigan’s defense en route to the Heisman Trophy.
The credentials and merits of Mike DeBord are easy to argue about, and hard to pin down. Last year did nothing to change that claim.
Is Joshua Dobbs ready to bust out in 2016, or did Tennessee’s fourth-quarter failures (not helped by poor decisions from Jones, especially against Florida) reveal a quarterback who won’t ever put the pieces together? Was 2015 a learning experience which will serve this team well in the coming months, or are the Vols a team which hasn’t yet established a winning culture, and needs a bolt of lightning to fulfill its potential?
The 2016 SEC season might be a referendum on Butch Jones’s coaching abilities, but Mike DeBord is arriving at a similarly revealing moment in a lengthy football career.
DeBord — as a lieutenant for Lloyd Carr, an old-school coach cut from the cloth of Bo Schembechler at Michigan — attached himself to a simpler, less sophisticated modus operandi as an offensive coordinator. In contrast to the sport’s recent innovators — Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Briles, Chip Kelly, and others — DeBord hasn’t left any appreciable philosophical imprint on the way college football offenses are coached.
Now that DeBord has a collection of talent which possesses both high-end skill and considerable experience, he will enter a situation akin to 2006 at Michigan, when he had Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham. DeBord’s offense wasn’t spectacular for most of that 2006 season, but it didn’t interfere with the defense’s ability to win.
That brings up one of the foremost contradictions of this coming season for Tennessee: Mike DeBord might not even have to be that great. If the defense carries its share of the workload, Dobbs and the rest of the offense won’t have to max out; they’ll just need to be good enough.
That term — “good enough” — conveys the notion that DeBord merely has to be adequate for the Children of the Checkerboard. However, if the defense is more vulnerable than many expect — and if Florida’s and Georgia’s quarterbacks exceed expectations — DeBord will have to set up camp in Neyland Stadium’s checkerboard end zones.
If he can’t, his boss — Butch Jones — will have to pack his bags and find another place to coach in 2017.