He’s in over his head. He needs to go back to the conference he came from. He’s squandering talent. He’ll never take this team to the next level.
Those are the things they were saying about Bret Bielema going into Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium.
Bielema’s Arkansas team was a preseason dark-horse pick to win the SEC West, but had lost three consecutive games to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. After a 1-3 start, Bielema had gone from media darling to goat. He was the only SEC coach being criticized more than Tennessee’s Butch Jones.
Which is why you just had a feeling that the drive east to Knoxville was going to be just what the doctor ordered for Bielema’s ailing program.
And it was. After spotting Tennessee 14 first quarter points, Bielema’s Razorbacks looked like the better-prepared and better-conditioned team, virtually dominating Jones’ Volunteers through the final three quarters of the contest.
The game improved Arkansas to 2-3. It dropped Tennessee, the preseason dark-horse pick to win the SEC East, to 2-3. And it seemed to further cement Butch Jones’ status as Derek Dooley 2.0.
No sooner than did the last of the hog calls ring out at Neyland Stadium after Saturday’s game than were the retreaded excuses being dragged out and dusted off from a week earlier, and two weeks before that: It’s a process, players have to make plays, Tennessee is young, et cetera.
And there is some truth in all of them. But, at some point, it also comes down to one thing: Coaches who are able to put together winning game plans, and that’s something Jones and his Tennessee staff have proven inept at this season.
It is a process, and Tennessee is young, but those were the excuses for years one and two of the Jones era, when Tennessee was struggling to a combined 12-13 record. Those excuses are also why most logical Tennessee fans — even the diehards who allow their fandom to interfere with their judgment — didn’t expect Tennessee to make the college football playoffs this year, win the SEC or even win a divisional championship.
But as we hit the midway point of the 2015 season, Tennessee is 2-0 against patsies, 0-3 in big-boy football, and that looks remarkably like 2013 and 2014.
It looks even more like years 2010, 2011 and 2012 under Dooley, and that’s what’s alarming.
After at times dominating very good football games before fourth quarter meltdowns in two previous losses, defensive coordinator John Jancek looked as far in over his head as offensive coordinator Mike DeBord in Saturday’s game against the Hogs, and that was the difference. Bielema’s Razorbacks gashed Tennessee’s defense, outscoring the Vols 24-3 after Tennessee grabbed a 14-0 lead early in the game, to do something neither Florida or Oklahoma was able to do: take control prior to the fourth quarter.
It’s also true that players do have to make plays, and players missed a bunch of plays in Saturday’s game. There were dropped passes, a boinked field goal and missed tackles by the bunches. There was a punt return for a touchdown that was called back because of a block in the back. There was a Preston Williams fumble inside the 10-yard-line. Put those back on the board with Aaron Medley’s chip-shot field goal attempt and Tennessee wins easily. But it all boils down to coaches putting players in position to make plays.
Which brings us to Tennessee’s offense. We knew Arkansas was going to offer up the best offense Tennessee had faced this season, but the saving grace was supposed to be the Razorbacks’ defense. The Hogs’ D had been victimized quite often during the first four games of the season, but looked like a championship-caliber defense inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday. After a brilliant 89-yard drive on its first possession, Tennessee was unable to drive the length of the field again.
It was so bad that, at one point late in the fourth quarter, with his team facing a fourth-and-short inside Tennessee’s 10-yard-line with a four-point lead, Bielema chose to go for a fake field goal. It was by any standard measure a boneheaded call. You won’t find that strategy on any of Butch Jones’ infamous charts. Conventional wisdom says to take the points, especially on the road. Kick the almost-automatic field goal and overtime becomes a worst-case scenario.
Except that Tennessee wasn’t going to drive the length of the field to win the game, and Bielema knew it. His call for the fake was the equivalent of giving a double middle finger to Jones from across the field. The fake failed, and Tennessee’s offense failed to drive the field. Game over.
Tennessee’s offensive woes are maddening. The Vols have proven adept at running the football — they should be; they have one of the SEC’s best running backs — but their downfield passing threat is non-existent. That was true against Oklahoma, it was true against Florida, and it was true against Arkansas.
By this point, it’s no secret that Tennessee isn’t going to beat many teams deep. Their talented receivers can’t seem to get separation against defensive backs, and Dobbs can’t make accurate throws down the field. Which is why, if Dobbs is in the game, his legs have to be utilized. He’s far more dangerous as a runner than as a passer.
DeBord and Jones seemed to realize that in Gainesville, and Dobbs was Tennessee’s leading rusher. In fact, he nearly single-handedly willed Tennessee to victory in The Swamp as he turned in arguably the best game of his career.
One week later, against Arkansas in Knoxville, Dobbs carried the ball just twice. As in two times.
If that mystifies you, it should. It fits the theme with this Tennessee coaching staff. From when to attempt a fourth down try to how to stop fourth down tries to when to go for two instead of one, many of this staff’s decisions have repeatedly mystified fans, and it’s a big part of why Tennessee’s only win in the last month was against an FCS opponent.
Unfortunately for Jones, the excuses are no longer working with a significant percentage of the Tennessee fan base, nor are they working with a significant percentage outside the fan base. You’ll see that manifest itself in ticket sales and home game atmospheres first, then on the recruiting trail.
In reality, the excuses had stopped working a week earlier — which is why Saturday’s game was a nothing-to-gain, everything-to-lose game for Jones. A win wouldn’t have excited the fan base, but it would have at least stalled the criticism. Instead, Jones lost far more than a football game. He lost the trust and faith and enthusiasm of a lot of the orange-clad faithful who were still holding on to hope that Jones was the man to be entrusted with the long-term future of the Tennessee football program.
Is it fair to launch into wholesale blame of the coaches for the 24-20 loss to the Razorbacks? Not really. Because, at the end of the night, players didn’t make plays. But Jones put himself in that position by losing two games that absolutely were the fault of the coaches and the coaches alone. So he really had no choice but to win on Saturday, and he didn’t. No, that may not be fair, but college football is seldom fair. If it were, Urban Meyer wouldn’t be able to fake a heart attack at Florida to escape the brutality of the SEC and immediately become a national championship winner at Ohio State.
Not everyone is against Jones, of course. He still has his defenders. And they’ll say things like “trust the process,” or “he needs more than three years.”
The process, though, was exposed in an unfavorable light Saturday night. Bret Bielema, like Butch Jones, is in his third year at his current school. Bielema, like Jones, is undergoing a process of trying to build a competitive program out of nothing — and he started much further in the hole than Jones started. One third-year coach got the win he desperately needed on the road, in a hostile environment, on Saturday while the other third-year coach failed to protect his home turf. If it’s a process, it’s stuck in neutral at the moment.
As for that process, there’s also a first-year coach down in Gainesville who absolutely walloped the No. 3 team in America on Saturday night. That first-year coach, incidentally, is 5-0, and defeated Jones with what might be the worst team he ever has at Florida.
If coaches like Bielema and Jim McElwain can get signature wins in years one or two, why are we still excusing Butch Jones’ lack of a signature win in year three?
This isn’t especially difficult. Jones doesn’t have to win the SEC. He only has to win a game here and there to make the fans feel good about the process. He had mastered the art of losing the 50/50 games — all of them. Saturday night, though, he did something new: for the first time in his three years in Knoxville, he lost a game his team was supposed to win.
Process? The only process seems to be yet another gut-wrenching coaching search for Tennessee. Because somewhere through the first five games of the 2015 football season, Butch Jones has made it pretty clear that it’s only a matter of time before UT athletics director Dave Hart is making a call to the search firm again. It isn’t going to happen this week and it isn’t going to happen at the end of this season. But, in the end, it will happen. That seems as sure as a Tennessee opponent’s chances of success on fourth down.