There has been a lot of talk this season about Butch Jones and whether he can coach “big boy football.” And I’ve had as many doubts as anybody. Still do, in fact. That at two of Tennessee’s losses this season involved fourth quarter meltdowns and all three saw the Vols lead by double-digits does not inspire much confidence in the man calling the shots.
With that said, perhaps this off-week is a good time to step back and take stock of exactly where this Tennessee program is at, vs. where it has come from.
From 2011-2013, Tennessee didn’t get to a bowl game. For most of that span, the Vols didn’t even whiff a win over a premier team, with the exception being a win over No. 11 South Carolina (which would finish the season ranked among the Top 5) in 2013. The attrition from the Lane Kiffin experiment began to take effect in 2011 and 2012, and Derek Dooley’s inability to recruit took over in 2013.
Fast-forward to this season, and Tennessee is a team on the verge.
• Oklahoma: Tennessee leads 17-0 at one point, and by as much as 17-3 in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma wins in double-overtime — after having to convert a fourth-and-goal in the first overtime. A number of other plays could’ve tipped the game in Tennessee’s direction, including a couple of other fourth down conversions, or Aaron Medley’s missed field goal try. Oklahoma rose to No. 10 in the polls and did not lose until this past weekend’s debacle against Texas. The Sooners are currently ranked No. 19 in the AP poll.
• Florida: Tennessee leads 27-14 in the fourth quarter. The Gators convert multiple fourth down conversions, including the unbelievable fourth-and-13 that turned into a 61-yard touchdown with a couple of minutes remaining. Again, any number of plays could have individually changed the outcome. Even with Tennessee’s inability to make plays, and questionable coaching, a strong argument can be made that incompetence by the officials changed the outcome of the game. There were at least three clock mistakes on Tennessee’s final possession that cost the Vols 12-15 seconds. Then, as Medley lined up for a 55-yard field goal try, Florida had 12 men on the field, forcing Jim McElwain to take a time out just before the ball was snapped. By rule, it should’ve been a five-yard penalty, which would have made the try from 50 yards. Would that have made a difference? Given how close Medley’s kick was from 55, it’s very possible that it would’ve. Florida was not ranked at the time, but remains undefeated and is now ranked No. 8 in the polls.
• Arkansas: Tennessee’s decision to take the ball after winning the toss looked brilliant when Evan Berry returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The Vols looked outstanding on their first offensive possession as well, crisply covering 89 yards for a 14-0 first quarter lead. After that, the wheels came off. Arkansas was able to tie the game (17-17) by halftime, eventually winning 27-20. Tennessee had the ball twice in the fourth quarter with an opportunity to send the game to overtime, but was unable to do so. Before it got to that point, though, the Vols had an opportunity to put the game out of reach in the first half. Take away Preston Williams’ fumble inside the 10-yard-line and a penalty that negated a punt return for a score and Tennessee would have led the game 31-17 at halftime, making Arkansas’ comeback much more unlikely. The Razorbacks were ranked in the Top 25 to start the season before disappointing losses to Toledo and Texas Tech. They followed up their win over Tennessee by leading Alabama for most of three quarters before running out of steam late.
That’s how close Tennessee is to being 6-0 going into next week’s game at Alabama. If the Vols had managed to hang on to their lead in each of those games, they would be ranked among the Top 10 teams in the country right now, and would be in the conversation as a dark-horse candidate for the College Football Playoffs at the mid-point of the season.
At the end of the day, it’s unlikely that Tennessee would’ve made the playoffs or even stayed in the Top 10. Winning at Alabama next week will prove a very difficult challenge for the Vols, and they would’ve also had to have faced an extremely difficult team from the SEC West in the conference championship game.
But just to be in the conversation at this point in the season would have far exceeded anyone’s expectations. Coming into the season, most folks thought Tennessee would finish the year with a record of 8-4 or 9-3, perhaps having a shot to win the SEC East. You would be hard-pressed to find anybody besides one Bleacher Report amateur writer who was dismissed by everyone as a nut who believed Tennessee was good enough to have a shot at making the playoffs as one of the best four teams in America.
And, yet, the Vols were that close to being in that conversation at the season’s halfway point.
I’m not sure whether Butch Jones can ever turn the corner with this team. We’ll probably know more about that by the time six more games are in the books. But one thing is for sure: the corner is right there, oh so close.