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Orange hushed: Butch Jones and Tennessee can’t get it right

Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire

It’s true that the Tennessee Volunteers had to play Alabama this season while other SEC East competitors didn’t, but Butch Jones entered this season — and Week 9 — knowing that a division title was a requirement in 2016, with one allowable exception which will be noted below.

Everyone in college football will lose to big, bad Bama — or at least will be forgiven for getting pounded by Team Saban — but everything else in college football, including the SEC East, is up for grabs.

Tennessee was supposed to step into this power vacuum and put an end to its Atlanta-free ways. The Vols were the clear preseason favorite to make the SEC Championship Game from the East for the first time since 2007.

Yes, the Vols’ SEC West crossover games (the other at Texas A&M) were brutal, but let’s also keep in mind that Kevin Sumlin entered 2016 on a seat that was at least as hot as Jones’s chair, if not hotter. Sumlin has enabled a team to rise above its fears and doubts.

This was the year Jones did the same in Knoxville.

As October ends, the verdict is depressingly clear: Jones hasn’t come that close.

Sure, the Texas A&M game went to overtime, and so one can allow that if the game had gone the other way, Tennessee’s season would still be on course to hit its target.

Yet, when viewed from another perspective following Saturday night’s loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks, Jones and his team have fallen well short of the mark.

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Stop and appreciate what Tennessee has received this season: The Vols escaped Appalachian State at home because they recovered their own fumble in the Mountaineers’ end zone in Week 1. They were trailing 14-0 to Virginia Tech when the Hokies decided to implode with a flood of turnovers. They played Florida on a day when Austin Appleby had to step in for opening-day starting quarterback Luke Del Rio.

Oh, and they got this play against Georgia after suffering a busted coverage with fewer than 20 seconds left in regulation:

October 1, 2016: Jauan Jennings (15) Tennessee Volunteers wide receiver catches the game winning pass in the end zone during the game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tennessee Volunteers (34) defeated the Georgia Bulldogs (31) at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire)

Jones runs out of magic: Tennessee can’t win without improbable occurrences. The Vols just can’t produce a straightforwardly strong performance. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire)

The Vols have needed heaven-sent lightning-bolt moments to escape on days when they played poorly. They and Jones have been the beneficiaries of several fortunate bounces of the odd-shaped ball, a counterbalance to the many injuries they’ve absorbed and the nasty Alabama-A&M schedule rotation in crossover SEC games.

The bottom line with Tennessee is this: In an SEC East which is conspicuously mediocre and historically weak — Saturday’s Cocktail Party between Georgia and Florida was a cringe-inducing game — going 0-2 against Bama and A&M should not matter. The Vols were supposed to wipe out each of the six SEC East teams on their slate and go 6-2 in conference action. If Florida was good enough to go 7-1 in the SEC and swipe the division despite losing to Tennessee, so be it.

If Butch Jones did not win the East in 2016, a 10-2, 6-2 (SEC) season was the one scenario in which everyone in and around the program could accept (albeit grudgingly) the lack of a trip to Atlanta. It was the exception referred to at the beginning of this piece.

That exception is now gone after a poor performance in Columbia, South Carolina, especially by quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who plainly has not improved under the watch of offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. When Hail Maries were being caught and late-game fumbles were being recovered, everyone was happy and prosperous. As soon as king-size breaks stopped falling into the Vols’ gift basket, though, this team hasn’t been able to win straight-up.

It has to make Vol fans furious.

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Yes, this team has been pounded by injuries, but if ever there was a time for Butch Jones’ undeniably formidable recruiting skills to pay off, it was in this game against South Carolina. Years of work on the recruiting trail were supposed to give Tennessee enough resources to cope with injures… at least against a Gamecock roster stitched together from various spare parts.

No one disputes that Steve Spurrier’s messy exit from Columbia left the cupboard bare, and that Will Muschamp has had to scramble to assemble the pieces in 2016. If South Carolina had no business squandering a fat, late lead to Tennessee in Williams-Brice Stadium two years ago, the Vols had no excuses this time.

Dobbs — through two months of what was supposed to be a make-or-break season for his career — had a bye week in which to reset the dial and improve his habits. Instead, he drowned in a sea of interceptions. South Carolina freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who was not ready to start on opening day in the opinion of his coaching staff, looked like the far more competent and poised signal-caller in this game.

COLUMBIA, SC - OCTOBER 29:  South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp gives his freshman quarterback Jake Bentley (4) a pat on the back after a score against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2016, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. (Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire)

COLUMBIA, SC – OCTOBER 29: South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp gives his freshman quarterback Jake Bentley (4) a pat on the back after a score against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 29, 2016, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. (Photo by Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire)

Massively outclassed by a freshman who was being thrown into the fire in the middle of the season? That’s where Josh Dobbs is now. That’s how poorly Mike DeBord has guided him. That’s how little Jones has been able to get out of his quarterback, who can make all sorts of improvised plays with his legs, but remains acutely deficient as a pocket passer and a reader of defenses.

Even if one allows for all the injuries which have plagued the Vols, they shouldn’t be losing to South Carolina in 2016. Josh Dobbs shouldn’t be getting outplayed by Jake Bentley, as good as Bentley was (and is, and could eventually become). If the Vols were playing a white-hot Auburn team, yeah, losing would confer no shame on them.

This wasn’t Auburn, though. This was an SEC East foe.

Butch Jones, after a bye week, had a chance to set his team on the right path. The schedule was supposed to be far more manageable than the A&M-Bama double the team had just endured. This was the SEC East closing stretch: South Carolina-Kentucky-Missouri-Vanderbilt. Win those games, win the East, provided Florida loses to LSU.

That’s all Butch Jones had to do. Against the 2016 SEC East, it wasn’t asking much.

Know what was also not asking much? Expecting Jones to finally coax a good first-quarter performance from his players. He still hasn’t done that in 2016 against an FBS opponent — not once.

Butch Jones couldn’t have asked for a much better situation in 2016. The SEC East was finally supposed to be his, since the Vols had far more talent than any other team in the division.

Disclaimer: Florida could still lose two more games, not just one. Tennessee could still back-door its way into Atlanta with a 5-3 SEC record. It would beat the alternatives, but after losing to Will Muschamp yet again, Jones knows that his season has taken on a different complexion.

He also knows that every skeptic who bit his or her tongue after the Florida and Georgia games has no real reason to quiet down.

Tennessee needs to make a loud statement of some kind before this season ends. If it doesn’t, the 2017 season will begin with fear, more than confidence, on Rocky Top.

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