As Team 120 prepares for their upcoming Music City Bowl matchup against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Dec. 30th, Vol Nation is still reeling from the outcome of Tennessee’s last contest.
The Vanderbilt Commodores, a team usually designated as the little brother that the Vols get to slap around once a year, stunned Tennessee on Nov. 26th, besting their in-state rival 45-34 and notching their sixth win of the season.
The loss was a wretched end to a regular season that had started off so well for the Volunteers, but derailed just as quickly. After winning the first five games of the year, including a victory against bitter rival Florida that ended an 11-year losing streak and a miraculous Hail-Mary escape against fellow SEC opponent Georgia, the Vols lost three straight, falling to Texas A&M, Alabama and a weak South Carolina squad. The team put together three wins in a row, but suffered their fourth loss of the year against the Commodores to finish the regular season with an 8-4 slate.
Now, with a win at the Music City Bowl only allowing the Vols to match last year’s record, head coach Butch Jones is on the hot seat. Many of the Tennessee faithful are calling for his job after expectations of an SEC East title and perhaps a College Football Playoff appearance evaporated into the Smoky Mountain air.
Should Butch Jones be fired?
Short answer: No. At least not yet.
Long answer: While questions concerning Jones’s potential ceiling and ability to take Tennessee where it needs to go are certainly warranted, it is still too early to make a final judgment on his ability to be the program’s best option.
Jones has coached the same group of players almost his entire career at Knoxville. Josh Dobbs has started at least four games each year Jones has been Tennessee’s coach, and tailback Jalen Hurd, who left the program in the middle of the year amid drama over his commitment to the team, was the go-to runner three of those four seasons. While Dobbs has performed well in many games throughout his career and will be remembered fondly by many Tennessee fans once it is over, he also struggled at times with passing accuracy and efficiency while starting for the Volunteers. Those struggles aided South Carolina in their victory over the Vols and have made it tougher for Tennessee to compete in some of their games the past few seasons.
Hurd quickly became Tennessee’s face of the franchise after impressing with his huge frame and powerful run, but performed poorly a large part of this season, giving way for sophomore John Kelly to become the new fan-favorite tailback on Rocky Top. Jones will be coaching a 2017 squad with a variety of new faces in the starting lineup. What if those players perform better than their predecessors? What if Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano prove to be the perfect match for Kelly, and the spark the new starters provide translates to East titles and playoff berths? Jones must be allowed the time to work with Tennessee’s young talent in order to determine whether past failings fall more on his shoulders, or those of his soon-to-be former players.
Also, is it totally wise to fire a coach who won more than twice as many games as he lost last year, and will most likely have the same result after the bowl game? Jones may have a ceiling, but that’s a pretty high one. How many coaches would be available for Tennessee to hire that can be counted on to bring the Volunteers championships? Hiring a new coach would just be starting all over again, and while the grass always looks greener on the other side, I’m willing to bet that most Tennessee fans would not be too excited to endure many more “rebuilding” years.
Tennessee needs to stick with Jones for at least one more year. If 2017 turns out no better than 2016, he should be cut loose without any hesitation. But if 2017 turns out to be the season that Vol fans have been waiting for such a long time, they’ll be glad they kept around the man from Cincinnati.
Lead image credit: Jerry Dunham via The Ledger