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Tennessee’s Butch Jones Can’t Afford a Loss Against Kentucky

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Tennessee coach Butch Jones has been the most scrutinized coach in the SEC in 2015. In his third year, he has suffered three losses — Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas — that came after holding a double-digit lead.

Of course, this led to a sudden turn in fan support — or rather lack thereof. Jones, who was heralded as a savior by Tennessee fans from his December 2012 hire up until the Oklahoma loss in Week 2, suddenly became public enemy No. 1. Sports talk radio shows across the Volunteer State were filled with angry fans who called-in demanding he be fired after the season — if not sooner.

Then suddenly, the tempers cooled down after Tennessee rallied to upset Georgia. It was the Vols’ first win over the Bulldogs since 2009 and Jones’ biggest of his coaching tenure.

The momentum continued as Tennessee managed to compete against Alabama in last week’s 19-14 loss. Moral victories mean nothing and Vols fans are tired of them being the fall back plan to build optimism, but no Tennessee team has kept the score close since 2009—which speaks volumes of Jones’ rebuilding plan.

This is what we know so far: Tennessee has talent from its back-to-back top 10 recruiting classes. Next year’s team should be a combination of both talent and experience, with the 2014 signing class entering its third year and last year’s class gaining more playing time.

But Jones is still far from off the hot seat.  Sure, the past two games managed to lower the temperature, but there are still five games remaining on the Vols’ schedule.

Saturday
Oct. 31
Wildcats at Kentucky Wildcats 
Commonwealth Stadium, Lexington, KY
7:30pm ET
SECN
Saturday
Nov. 7
Gamecocks South Carolina Gamecocks 
Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN
4:00pm ET
SECN
Saturday
Nov. 14
Mean Green North Texas Mean Green (HC)
Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN
TBA
Saturday
Nov. 21
Tigers at Missouri Tigers 
Faurot Field, Columbia, MO
TBA
Saturday
Nov. 28
Commodores Vanderbilt Commodores 
Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN
TBA

Starting with today’s game at Kentucky, Tennessee shouldn’t lose another game for the rest of the season. North Texas needs little explanation, while South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt are the three worst teams in the SEC.

Realistically, Kentucky is the only team that should be capable of competing against Tennessee in 2015. Sure, Mark Stoops — who was hired just weeks before Jones — has his program headed in the right direction and should secure a postseason berth in the coming weeks. But, Tennessee should not lose to Kentucky based on what Jones has fed the fanbase for almost three years. The Vols are still a rising program, but losing to the Wildcats proves that its rival — who was on the short end of a 26-year losing streak — is farther ahead in its rebuilding efforts and made a better coaching hire.

Yes, Jones accepted Derek Dooley’s mess and was left with little, but Stoops had the same amount — if not more — of needed improvement replacing Joker Phillips. There’s also the history behind the rivalry.

As mentioned, Tennessee dominated Kentucky for more than a quarter of a century before a Dooley-coached team lost to a team that started a wide receiver playing quarterback. This led to a full-year of hot seat talk and an inevitable firing one week prior to the teams’ matchup in 2012.

Tennessee fans will not accept a loss against Kentucky. Jones needs this victory to keep momentum on his side.

The Vols could end their regular season with an 8-4 (5-3 SEC) record, the best finish since 2007. All will be forgiven with an eight or nine-win season and a roster full of talent heading into 2016.

But Tennessee fans will be more cautious before worshipping Jones again. Before the love affair can continue, the coach needs to prove he’s a consistent game manager. To do so, he must survive Saturday’s game against an improved Kentucky team.

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