There aren’t any catchy phrases or slogans for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones to use to describe Saturday night or the 2016 season.
The Volunteers’ hapless 45-34 loss to rival Vanderbilt was the low point of a disappointing season and the biggest debacle of Jones’ four-year regime. It positions UT in a bowl game nobody will care about and drops Jones squarely in boiling water.
The only spin you hear from Nashville will be the sound of a Vols season that was already teetering on the brink swirling down the drain. The biggest question now is if Jones will go with it.
An emotional, frustrated fanbase will scream “Yes!” in colorful, 140-character messages over the course of the next few months. While it may be a trigger-finger reaction, the anger has merit.
This may not be the end, but it could be the beginning of it.
The Times Free Press‘ Patrick Brown pointed out this loss feels somewhat like Derek Dooley’s penultimate season in Knoxville following the Kentucky loss:
This feels like Kentucky 2011 all over again in some respects.
— Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP) November 27, 2016
Jones may not be fired after blowing the game against the Commodores, but he has nothing to boast on his resume for the year. And where there’s little progress, there’s less hope.
Had UT won, he would have promoted the “continual improvement” angle after going 9-3, despite the failure of not representing the weak East in the SEC Championship Game. Now, he can’t. With opportunity staring the Vols in the face, they blew it.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Butch Jones in happier times.
With Florida’s loss to Florida State and the fact that the Gators are heavy underdogs against Alabama in next week’s SEC Championship Game, the Vols had a golden opportunity to earn a Sugar Bowl invitation with a win over Vanderbilt.
They squandered the chance away with the same porous defense and undisciplined, mistake-prone offense that has plagued them this season. Forget progress. If anything, because of all the mistakes and disappointing, late-season losses, UT is worse than it was in 2015.
The spiral wasn’t lost on the Times Free Press‘ Stephen Hargis, who tweeted there’s only one area to lay the blame:
I repeat, pathetic. UT has regressed more than any team in the country since the start of the season. And that, friends, is coaching
— Stephen Hargis (@StephenHargis) November 27, 2016
Failing in the face of such high expectations could wind up being the downfall of the Jones regime. It’s the second such time UT choked with everything going its way. All the Vols needed to do to seize the division was win out against South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Bookend road losses proved this team wasn’t up to that challenge. Now, let the angst ensue.
A hungry fanbase’s well-founded frustrations boiled over Saturday, and while administrators can’t make emotional decisions with millions of dollars, you have to wonder just how high the Vols’ ceiling is under this coaching staff.
After hiring a new chancellor this week, change is churning in Knoxville. Jones’ protective shield of former athletic director Dave Hart won’t be around much longer, so the grumbles of the current state of the program will be heard loud and clear.
SEC athletic directors are judged by the health of their football programs, and whoever takes the helm in Knoxville will likely have a short leash for Jones. ADs often want to roll with their guy in the high-stakes world of SEC football.
That doesn’t bode well for Jones.
After a prolonged honeymoon showered with love for the recruiting classes Jones brought in and the way he rebuilt the program after the failed tenures of Lane Kiffin and Dooley, the Vols believed this was the year to return to the national conversation.
John Sommers II/Getty Images
Former Vols head coach Derek Dooley.
Instead, they were a divisional footnote.
Throw in the midseason departures of running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Preston Williams, and the perception around the program is at an ebb as well.