Tennessee traveled to Gainesville on Sept. 16 and came up on the short end of a 26-20 decision to Florida, as the Gators bounced back from their 2016 loss in Knoxville and stretched their winning streak against the Vols in The Swamp to six, dating back to 2005. Here are 10 things that stood out . . .
1.) John Kelly is a football player
Look, there are a lot of negative things to say about yet another Tennessee loss to Florida, but let’s focus on something positive: the play of Tennessee’s junior runningback John Kelly. We said it before the season started: Kelly is the most underrated runningback in the SEC. And now the rest of the conference is finding it out. It’s impossible to say how many games the Vols will win this season, but there’s no doubt that they’ll win some they shouldn’t because of John Kelly.
To say that Kelly was unheralded when he came out of Oak Park, Mich., would be an understatement. His only major offers were his home-state schools, Michigan and Michigan State, along with Iowa, Maryland and Cincinnati. No one south of the Mason-Dixon Line knew anything about him. But Butch Jones, himself familiar with Michigan high school football, knew about him, and lured him to Big Orange Country.
Kelly finished with 141 yards on 19 carries, and 96 yards on six catches. Kelly had 237 of Tennessee’s 442 yards of total offense. It was quite a game for him.
2.) Playcalling malpractice
My biggest gripe during five years of Butch Jones football at Tennessee has been the Vols’ tendency to stick with their shotgun offense in situations where the down-and-distance would traditionally dictate going under center. Throw in questionable offensive line play — which has been a hallmark of the Jones era — and opposing defenses can get excellent penetration with run blitzes in third-and-short or goal-to-go situations.
That came back to bite Tennessee in a big way on more than one occasion today. More than that, Tennessee went away from its best weapon at the worst of times. Trailing 6-3 in the third quarter, the Vols had a first-and-goal inside the one-yard-line. The call was a pass play. A PASS PLAY! Then another. And, on third down, another pass that ended in an interception. Tennessee had a first-and-goal two feet away from the goal line and John Kelly didn’t touch the football once.
In the fourth quarter, with Tennessee trailing 20-10, the Vols again had the ball on Florida’s side of the field. Facing third-and-five, Tennessee went with a questionable play-call to set up a long field goal attempt, which was missed (the Vols had already missed their last two field goal attempts), rather than going for the first down.
Finally, on Tennessee’s final possession of the game, the Vols had a first-and-goal inside Florida’s 10-yard-line. Again, the Vols dialed up three straight pass plays. All fell incomplete. Kelly was targeted on two of them, but that’s a far cry from just handing him the ball and letting him work.
So, to recap: Tennessee twice in the second half had a first-and-goal, ran six plays with Kelly getting no touches, and wound up with a grand total of three points.
3.) We’ve been here before . . .
I’m writing this before I see Butch Jones’ press conference. I don’t need to see Jones’ press conference. Because I know what’s coming. Amid the cliches and the sassy responses to reporters who dare ask him to explain what the entire college football world saw as nonsensical play-calling, Jones is going to defend his decisions with the same stubborn coach-speak he has used to defend his decisions on countless other decisions.
I’ve said it since Year Two of the Jones’ era and I’ll continue to say it: This is a MAC-level coach, and he’ll never win championships in the SEC because of that MAC-level attitude. The worst part is that he’s too stubborn to admit he’s wrong. Sometimes it’s as though he’s intentionally defying logic to try and prove to the rest of us just how smart his MAC-level approach is.
4.) This is Butch Jones’ offense
Some folks on Twitter were burning up Tennessee offensive coordinator Larry Scott in the second half. Let’s make no mistake: This is not Larry Scott’s offense. We were all complaining about these exact same issues when Mike Bajakian was the offensive coordinator. Bajakian left for the NFL and Tennessee hired Mike DeBord, and we continued to complain. DeBord left for Indiana and Tennessee promoted Scott, and we’re still complaining.
This is Butch Jones’ offense. The buck stops with him.
5.) Tennessee’s defense is still bad
For the most part, Bob Shoop’s defensive gameplan was not terrible. He called the right blitzes and the right pass coverages to hold Florida in check. But there were way too many missed tackles, way too many poor pursuit angles . . . and there’s still the fact that Tennessee gave up 380 yards to the worst Florida offense in almost 30 years.
That’s to say nothing of the last play debacle. In that situation, how do you allow Florida to get a receiver in a one-on-one situation 63 yards down the field? Much less behind you?
6.) Quinten Dormady’s worst game
Quinten Dormady didn’t look all bad. Late in the fourth quarter, it certainly looked as though Butch Jones made the right decision to stick with Dormady after a very shaking first three quarters. Dormady’s touchdown pass to Ethan Wolf was a beautiful throw and perfect execution. But the three interceptions — one of them on the goal line and one of them a pick-six — were critical. Dormady throws off his back foot way too much, and throws behind his receivers way too often. Could Jarrett Guarantano prove to be any better? I don’t know. Until today I didn’t think so. But I don’t think it would be a bad idea to give him a few series here and there to see if he can develop a feel for the offense in a game setting.
7.) It isn’t all on Dormady
Quinten Dormady did not have a great game, but he didn’t get much help from his receivers. Even John Kelly, who is typically a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield, dropped what would have been the go-ahead touchdown near the end of the game. Even with Josh Smith and Tyler Byrd back in the lineup today, Tennessee’s receivers got way too little separation throughout the game. Marquez Callaway has proven himself a playmaker but the cold, hard truth is that this is not a good wide receivers unit.
8.) Never give up
Tennessee’s defense forced three turnovers today, and two of them were because players refused to give up at the end of plays. Florida appeared to be salting the game away with a 74-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, which would have put the Gators ahead 27-10, and Tennessee’s Justin Martin chased down Malik Davis to punch the ball out just as he was about to cross the goal line. It was reminiscent of a play at Texas A&M in 2016, and Nigel Warrior made a similar play (albeit not at the goal line) in the second quarter of today’s game.
For whatever problems Bob Shoop’s defense might have, it may also be the best defense in college football at forcing turnovers from behind because players refuse to give up on plays. Remember, Tennessee doesn’t win the season-opener against Georgia Tech without a similar forced fumble at the end of a long run deep in Vols’ territory.
9.) 1-3 vs. 3-1
Go back to 2014, when Tennessee had a 9-0 lead on Florida as the fourth quarter began at Neyland Stadium. The Vols were the better team that day, and found a way to lose to the Gators in a fourth quarter comeback.
How little did we know at the time that this would become a staple of Butch Jones’ games against Florida. Tennessee should not have won its game against Florida in 2013, Jones’ first season in Knoxville. Florida was clearly the better team that season. But not only could you have made strong arguments for a Tennessee win going into the 2014, 2015 and 2017 games, but the Vols had Florida as good as beat each time.
In 2015, Florida got another miracle that was very reminiscent of today’s. Today it was a 63-yard hail mary. In 2015, on the same field, it was a 63-yard pass on fourth-and-long. Granted, Tennessee did not have today’s game won (the Vols could’ve found themselves in that position if not for horrid play-calling inside the 10-yard-line, but I digress). You had to like Tennessee’s chances in overtime against a gassed Florida defense, however.
Jim McElwain is not a long-term coach at Florida because he is not an SEC-level coach. The natives are already growing restless in Gainesville, McElwain more trouble than most people realize with the off-the-field issues plaguing his team right now, and he will be on the hot seat before the end of this season. But he’s 2-1 against Jones, twice stealing victory from the jaws of defeat because of poor execution by Jones’ teams.
The bottom line? Butch Jones should be 3-1 against Florida. Instead, he’s 1-3. And that one win required an epic comeback after Florida jumped to a 21-0 lead.
10.) This one is all on Butch Jones
If Tennessee had won today’s game, there would have been no talk in Knoxville about Butch Jones’ hot seat. But there should’ve been. Because Tennessee should have won by a couple of touchdowns. There were other issues to talk about, but the horrific play-calling inside the 10-yard-line was reason enough to question how in the world Butch Jones is ever going to grow into a championship-level coach in this dog-eat-dog conference.
If Florida had punched that 74-yard touchdown run in and won the game by something along the lines of 27-10, there would have been lots of talk about Butch Jones’ hot seat. Because of the way it all ended, with Tennessee gutting out a comeback to tie the game before the Gators won on what many will see as a fluke play, there won’t be as much hot seat talk as there otherwise would’ve been, or perhaps should be, but it’s still going to be there.
I’m sorry, but there deserves to be lots of talk about Butch Jones’ future at Tennessee. The Vols are not going to beat Georgia, they’re not going to beat Alabama, and South Carolina is looking better than anyone expected. So is Vanderbilt, for that matter. And Kentucky is still one of the SEC’s most experienced teams. Oh, and Ed Orgeron has LSU ranked No. 12 in the country.
Butch Jones has less than 50/50 shot of finishing this season as Tennessee’s head coach. With a win today, he would’ve virtually guaranteed himself — barring an epic meltdown later in the year — of at least one more season. Instead, he wet the bed at times when it mattered most in The Swamp today.
Jones has been whining for a few months now about the “noise in the system,” to quote former Florida coach Ron Zook. That being so, should Jones unplug and go off the grid tonight? He might want to. Because the noise in the system is just starting to amplify. And deservedly so.