What a difference a year makes.
Last year, Tennessee coach Butch Jones was the most popular man in the Volunteer State. Many Vols fans regarded him as the potential savior for an ailing program stuck in rebuilding mode for nearly a decade.
In 2014, Jones had a longer leash. Given his current scenario — a 2-3 (0-2 SEC) record — the then-second-year coach would be able to preach “moral victories” or “rebuilding” to keep fans optimistic of the future. Let’s not forget that Tennessee had a nine-point lead against Florida last season before allowing 10-point fourth quarter rally.
But now, in Year 3 of his coaching tenure, Jones faces more scrutiny with every loss, especially since his team has managed to waste double-digit leads and failed to pose an offensive threat in the fourth quarter.
Even leading up to Tennessee’s Week 2 loss to Oklahoma, Jones was still beloved by the majority of the fan base. But since, more fans have become tired of the same cliches and promises that brought optimism and are hungry for a turnaround.
It doesn’t help that rival Florida is finding immediate success under Jim McElwain. Why can McElwain accomplish the same feat Jones has been attempting for almost three years in one season?
The losses, cliches and a sudden controversy — which has been deemed as false accusations so there’s no use in an explanation — have suddenly made Jones a pariah to the Tennessee faithful.
Fans are calling for his job and with Georgia set to visit Knoxville this weekend, it doesn’t seem that Jones’ hot seat will get any cooler. Or will it?
For hypothetical purposes, let’s say Tennessee fixes all its flaws from its three losses and pulls off an upset at home. Will that be enough to save Jones’ job.
Trust me, this is strictly hypothetical. As an alum, I’ve seen my share of struggling Tennessee teams and — despite the improved level of talent from the past few years — this team is one of them.
But let’s assume somehow Nick Chubb doesn’t record 300 yards on a banged-up Tennessee defense. Perhaps Josh Dobbs is allowed to throw the football and has a career day passing and rushing. Maybe Jalen Hurd is given more than four carries in the second half.
If all the pieces fall together for the Vols will it be enough to wash away the despair of the three losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas? In hindsight, the first two teams that remain undefeated and ranked in the Top 25.
Obviously, Arkansas is a different story, but — like Tennessee in its upcoming matchup — the Razorbacks were a hungry team in desperation mode. But again, that’s on Jones and the coaching staff.
He can either continue to use the excuse of his team being “young” or take charge and get his inexperienced players ready for a battle against the top team in the SEC East. In preseason, some expected this game to be the most important factor in whether Tennessee could be a dark horse contender in the SEC East.
Now, it’s assumed that Georgia will run through the Vols and bounce back from a disappointing blowout loss against Alabama in Week 5. Tennessee’s team is talented enough to compete, which has proven by losing three games by a combined 12-point margin.
Somehow the Vols must be the same team they’ve been in the first quarter throughout Saturday’s game. No conservative offense, no “playing not to lose” or being extra passive.
If Jones can somehow shed his old habits and earn a victory against Georgia it will not only turn Tennessee’s season around but also bring some optimism back to the fan base. However, seeing what we’ve seen from the Vols this season, Georgia coming off a disappointing loss and no one on Tennessee’s defense being capable of stopping Nick Chubb, the anger will likely grow in the Volunteer State.