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Is Tennessee football really at a 20-year high?

Photo: UTSports.com

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has said a number of curious things since the Vols’ excellent start to the 2016 season went off the rails amid a rash of injuries. But what Jones had to say on a Nashville radio show Wednesday afternoon left even his ardent defenders scratching their heads.

“The last three years, the last two years have been some of the best years in the last 20 years of Tennessee football,” Jones said on the 3HL show on Nashville’s 104.5 The Zone on Wednesday. His comments came after he was asked about his Monday press conference, when he said that local media is creating “overwhelming negativity” around the program.

Fans were quick to point out that, 20 years ago, Peyton Manning was leading the Vols to the SEC championship. A year later, Tennessee won the inaugural BCS National Championship Game.

To his credit, Jones didn’t say the last two years were the best in 20 years; he said they were some of the best in 20 years. Technically, he’s not wrong; the last two seasons’ identical 9-4 records rank among the upper half of the Vols’ seasons over the past two decades. But the comment did not sit well with Tennessee fans who have grown weary of what some Jones’ unique arsenal of catch-phrases and optimism.

Despite a 3-1 start to the 2017 season, Jones has come under intense scrutiny after Tennessee lost to arch-rival Florida on a 63-yard bomb touchdown pass on the game’s last play and struggled to defeat a woeful UMass team at Neyland Stadium last week. On Monday, a clearly frustrated Jones lost his cool with reporters when he was asked about defensive lineman Shy Tuttle, who missed Saturday’s game with an unspecified injury.

“There comes a point when enough is enough,” Jones said before walking out of the press conference.

Those comments caused national football prognosticators to double-down on their criticism of Jones and has left some fans openly speculating on whether Jones will be fired if his team loses to No. 7 Georgia this week, which seems unlikely.

Jones’ Wednesday press conference was uneventful, but his comments on Nashville radio have thrust him back into the spotlight.

Tennessee won eight regular season games and a bowl game in both the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

But the Vols came up short in the SEC East each season. That was an especially painful shortcoming for fans in 2016, when the Vols were an overwhelming favorite to win the division for the first time since 2007. Tennessee started the season with wins over Florida and Georgia, but lost to South Carolina and Vanderbilt down the stretch, after earlier SEC losses to Texas A&M and Alabama.

In the past 20 years, the Vols have won the SEC East five times (1997, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2007) and have won at least 10 games six times, while also winning two conference championships (1997 and 1998) and a national championship (1998). In terms of wins, the 2015 and 2016 seasons would be tied for the eighth-best seasons in the past 20 years.

Wednesday wasn’t the first time in recent months that Jones has praised Tennessee’s success in a manner that has drawn criticism. Paul Finebaum, one of the most popular of the SEC’s talking heads, said in July that Jones “has done a really good job of lowering expectations, which is what I think he wants to do.”

Be that as it may, it appears that Jones’ technique has worked. The Tennessee fan base is sharply divided on Jones’ future as the Vols head into this weekend’s game. Many of those who defend Jones point out that he inherited a “dumpster fire” from Derek Dooley, who was fired in 2012 after what was arguably the worst three-year stretch in Tennessee football history.

That was part of what drew Finebaum’s ire this summer. The talk host said Tennessee fans should not be happy with eight-win seasons, and criticized Jones for continuing to talk about his first season at Tennessee as he enters his fifth year as head coach.

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