ATLANTA, Ga. — As Tennessee gets set to cap the first weekend of college football against Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium tonight (8 p.m., ESPN), Butch Jones is facing what is arguably the biggest game of his coaching career.
The Tennessee head coach is under scrutiny as the season begins, after his team limped to an 8-4 finish with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt last season after being a preseason Top 10 and favorite to win the SEC East.
Exactly how hot Jones’ seat is depends on who you ask. Coacheshotseat.com, while hardly a website known for its expertise, lists Jones as the 13th hottest seat in America — which is third in the SEC. Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin has the hottest seat in college football, according to the website, and likely did little to heighten his job security with Sunday night’s epic choke in California, where UCLA stormed back from a 44-10 third quarter deficit to defeat the Aggies. Arkansas’ Bret Bielema has the No. 6 hot seat, according to the same list.
Jones’ fans and critics alike realize this is a pivotal season for the fifth-year head coach. Even those who don’t think he will be fired this season admit that he needs to win enough games to save his job.
If there’s a magic number for how many games Jones’ Team 121 needs to win, no one has access to it. A recent poll by the Chattanooga Times Free Press found that most UT fans are pleased with Jones, while also not expecting Tennessee to win more than eight games in 2017. Depending on who you ask, most agree that Jones is definitely safe if he wins eight games, and he’s probably safe if he wins seven. Anything less than that, however, and all bets are off. New athletics director John Currie has shown he isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on coaching changes, making two of them in his first months on the job.
One week ago, most prognosticators would have said that Tennessee’s most likely losses in 2017 are Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU — in that order. Most power indexes give the Vols a less than 50 percent chance of winning any of those games.
If Tennessee is in fact unable to beat any of the four marquee opponents on its schedule, the Vols would need to run the table in their remaining SEC games and against their four non-conference opponents to reach that eight-win plateau. And arguably the biggest test of all those eight games is tonight in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech presents unique challenges. For one, it’s essentially a home game for the Yellow Jackets, even though it’s on a neutral field. Georgia Tech’s spread option is notoriously difficult to prepare for, if only because opposing defenses rarely see it. And the Jackets return 15 starters from a 2016 season that saw them win nine games, including a 33-18 win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The Yellow Jackets are without preseason All-ACC runningback Dedrick Mills, who has been dismissed from the team. But the Georgia Tech offensive line is a veteran unit that should be able to hold its own against a Tennessee defensive line that is talented but has question marks all over it.
That isn’t to say that the Jackets don’t have their challenges in tonight’s game, which finds them a 3.5-point underdog to Tennessee. Three-year starter at quarterback, Justin Thomas, is gone. Paul Johnson has been coy about who his starting quarterback is, though it will be Matthew Jordan.
But, then, Georgia Tech doesn’t necessarily need a star quarterback in the backfield. The Yellow Jackets threw the ball just 160 times in 2016 — as opposed to 611 running plays. You can do the math: that’s an average of just over 12 pass attempts per game. For Tennessee, the formula is simple. Stop the run, and Georgia Tech cannot win. But if the Vols cannot stop the run, the Yellow Jackets will have an inside track to an upset win.
For Tennessee to stop the run, the defensive line and linebacking corps will be especially important. That’s key, because Tennessee is without middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who is out for the season with a knee injury.
All of that is to say this: tonight’s season-opener in Atlanta is hardly a “gimme” for the Vols. And with the stakes as high as they are, that means Jones and his new staff will have to be up to the challenge in Mercedes-Benz Stadium tonight.
There are those who would argue that tonight’s game is of little significance. After all, a loss would not hurt the Vols’ chances of winning the SEC East.
But from a perspective of confidence, tonight’s game is of major significance. If Tennessee falls to Georgia Tech, Tennessee cannot get to eight wins without springing a fairly major upset in SEC play. And there are plenty of other potential upsets lurking. Kentucky looked pedestrian in its win over Southern Miss on Saturday, but the Wildcats return virtually everyone from a year ago and will present a tough out in Lexington in late October. South Carolina looked impressive in its upset win over NC State. Even Vanderbilt looked quasi impressive, even if the opponent was Middle Tennessee State.
This could be viewed as a much-to-lose, little-to-gain game for Tennessee. Winning this one guarantees nothing. Remember, Derek Dooley’s Vols blasted NC State in this same game in 2012. Three months later, Tennessee had a 4-7 record and Dooley was out of a job. Losing it, though, could cause doubt to begin creeping in. A good coach and a good staff can salvage team morale after a disheartening loss. But that job becomes exponentially more difficult when everyone is talking about the coach’s future. These players are barely out of high school. They’re impressionable, and they read what’s being said on Twitter.
So those are the stakes. This game against Georgia Tech is a big one for Jones. Probably his biggest, in fact.