All hope seemed lost for Butch Jones. Tennessee entered its Week 5 matchup against heavily favored Georgia with a 2-3 record, the product of three late-game collapses and questionable game management.
Many Vols fans spent the week calling for his job and planning for yet another coaching search on Rocky Top. Based on what we’ve seen thus far, there was little hope that Jones and Tennessee would be capable of upsetting mighty Georgia, even at home in front of a fan base torn in half by several weeks of heartbreak.
The odds grew as the Vols faced a 24-3 with just over three minutes remaining before halftime. Then the unthinkable happened: Tennessee rallied to score 14 points in three minutes to cut its deficit to seven before halftime.
The Vols would score 28 unanswered before Georgia tied the game in the fourth quarter. Then, the most uncharacteristic thing happened: Tennessee took momentum back in the fourth quarter.
It’s been the one thing that’s plagued the team most all season. The Vols showed an inability to put teams away late, but in a matchup against an assumed favorite in the SEC East, Jones and co. did just that in a 38-31 thriller.
It was a win that Tennessee fans have longed for since Jones’ arrival in 2012. This victory outweighs the South Carolina rallies of 2013 and 2014 and even the Vols’ TaxSlayer Bowl win in January.
Saturday’s defeat of Georgia — a ranked opponent and preseason favorite to win the SEC East — should be the solidification of Jones’ rebuilding promises. Instead, it serves as a way to divert negative attention from a rabid fan base away for the time being.
Last week may have been the most stressful of Jones’ life. The coach was coming off his third disappointing loss of the season and face both fan displeasure and allegations of “inappropriate conduct” in an altercation with a player, which have since been deemed false.
So Saturday’s win isn’t just special for the Tennessee fans who have endured five straight losses to Georgia and lacked a win of this magnitude. It’s huge for Jones, his team and his coaching staff who have all been scrutinized for disappointing play these last few weeks.
But this is a win many thought Tennessee was capable of during preseason. Jones’ team is talented — albeit young — and was believed by some to compete with Georgia for the division title.
Sure, the team faced a rough patch, but each of those losses could easily be wins and the Vols would be atop the SEC East standings at 6-0. Obviously, that’s on Jones and his staff and much of the scrutiny was deserved.
But Saturday’s win definitely eases the tension in Knoxville. It’s not to say that Jones just solidified a spot on Rocky Top for one more season, but it’s more of a possibility than it seemed following another double-digit collapse last week against Arkansas.
It’s difficult to stay in the good graces of an entire fan base. Jones managed to do so for his first two seasons, but lost some support as his team struggled in Year 3 — the ultimate measurement of a coaching hire.
This win will ease some of the doubt, at least for the time being. Tennessee enters its bye week before traveling to Alabama — its most difficult matchup of the season.
But the Vols should be favored in each of their remaining games thereafter. Saturday’s win brings new life to an ailing program in dire need of a momentum shift. If the same team that carried the fight through four quarters against Georgia shows up against its remaining schedule, the Vols should earn consecutive bowl appearances for the first time since 2010.
Tennessee’s victory not only saved its season, but potentially the job status of its head coach.