Uncertainty and unhappiness have led to a long offseason for Tennessee football fans. I don’t need to remind them of the disappointments from the 2016 football season, but for the rest of the college football world, here it goes.
Tennessee entered the season with top-10 talent and SEC Championship game expectations only to scrap by Appalachian State in overtime in the opener. The Vols broke the streak against Florida and Hail Mary’d their way to a victory in Athens, but turnovers and injuries led to a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M and thrashing at the hands of Alabama.
Jalen Hurd’s departure midseason created a cloud of chemistry uncertainty right after Tennessee dropped an embarrassing game to South Carolina in Columbia. After Florida clinched the SEC East with a week to go in the regular season, the Vols gave away a Sugar Bowl opportunity by watching Kyle Shurmur throw for 416 yards in a depressing loss to little brother Vanderbilt.
Now that that’s over with, let me tell you why Butch Jones is facing a terrible situation that’s playing right into the hands of unsettled fans.
Last year’s collapse coupled with Tennessee’s failure to see the SEC Championship game since Jones’ tenure began have some fans ready to move on from the fifth-year coach. If Tennessee can’t be back in four years, fans argue, especially with the team the Vols assembled last season — then the Big Orange needs someone better.
Some fans wanted Jones gone this offseason, others are going as far as to root for the Vols to have an average (or below-average) season just to see the Vols bring in a new head ball coach. Seriously, some are abandoning their team fandom this year because their faith in an every-season winner was set back last year.
However, most fans aren’t as negative. At least not that negative. While most have concerns with Jones’ ceiling as the Vols’ coach, the majority isn’t sold either way on him.
Objectively, that’s as fair as you could as from a fanbase that saw the worst stretch in program history under Derek Dooley. Simply put, Vol fans don’t want to delay the rise back to the elite of college football. They’ve seen what the wrong guy can do to the program.
That’s why Butch Jones is in a Catch 22 position right now.
Don’t get me wrong, as a football guy, I’m in the middle on Jones’ potential for Tennessee. However, you can’t deny that the pressure is mounting. Tennessee’s fanbase is one of the most emotional, driven and ruthless in all of sports. They’ve petitioned to bring former coaches back, burned couches after one left, but just want to win. If things boil over this year, it could be his last on Rocky Top.
For that reason, now more than any year before in Knoxville, he has to overachieve in 2017. However, the Vols aren’t exactly set up to do just that. Tennessee lost a starting quarterback, both lead running backs, its lead receiver, both defensive ends and a starting defensive tackle, its senior linebacker, its lockdown corner and a safety.
Not only do the Vols have to deal with all of that, but all of the rest of the SEC East seemingly got better. Well, with the exception of Missouri. Damerea Crockett is a star, but sorry, Missouri. You don’t really have much of a chance this year.
Tennessee needs half of its starters to get adjusted to SEC play quickly while the rest of the division is back stronger. Georgia and Florida will be an even bigger hurdle for what the Vols bring to play this season, but Tennessee barely beat both a year ago.
If Team 121 was Butch Jones’ first team on Rocky Top, the expectations would be around 8-4. This year, 8-4 might get him fired. I’m not saying the year-to-year expectations should be 8-4. They shouldn’t be. However, no one should expect this roster to go 10-2 with the Vols’ schedule. It’s just not how football works.
The good news for Jones is that he has some incredible staff additions, a healthy roster, and promising young talent to start the year. Walt Wells, Brady Hoke and Charlton Warren are all upgrades to the coaching staff, and newly promoted offensive coordinator Larry Scott is one of the best young minds in the game.
Both starting quarterback candidates Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Gurantano have shown promising arms in limited action to the public eye, and presumed starting running back John Kelly proved to be one of the toughest runners in the division with more playing time towards the end of last season. The Vols’ recruiting speaks for itself, and they won’t be short of talent to start the season.
However, Georgia and Florida are more experienced, Alabama is still multiple steps ahead of everyone in the SEC, and LSU will probably be too tough a matchup despite the November game being in Neyland.
The pieces are all there for Butch Jones to achieve this season, but the mounting pressure feels like he must overachieve to keep the fanbase from running him out of town. The potential for success is there, but the odds aren’t in the Vols’ favor. This year should show us if the pressure results in a budding diamond or a crumbled mess.