KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee will venture back into SEC play Saturday, when No. 7 Georgia visits Neyland Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff in front of a national CBS audience.
The Vols (3-1, 0-1) will be looking to continue a two-game winning streak against the Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0) but will do so as a touchdown underdog in their own stadium.
As the game begins, the biggest narrative won’t be the play of Tennessee’s John Kelly, the SEC’s leading rusher, or Georgia’s Jake Fromm, the freshman quarterback who might have taken Jacob Eason’s starting job for good. Instead, it’ll be the job security of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones.
Jones is squarely on the hot seat after last Saturday’s lackluster win over Massachusetts. But he made things worse for himself Monday, when he went on an ill-advised tangent that was aimed at a mostly-friendly Knoxville press corps. The national narrative has soured on Jones since that Monday press conference, and the national writers weren’t too friendly towards the Vols’ coach to start with. In fact, CBS Sports’ own Barrett Sallee had already called for Jones to be fired.
So, times are rough in Knoxville, and there has been speculation that Jones could be fired as soon as next week if he does not beat Georgia. With all that in mind, here are three possible outcomes to Saturday’s game, and how they impact Jones’ job security.
1.) Tennessee wins. Someone is scoffing. But if you think Tennessee can’t win this game, you don’t know much about the Tennessee-Georgia series. For that matter, you don’t know much about college football in general.
Yes, Tennessee is a decided underdog. But it isn’t as though a win would be the biggest upset in school history. It wouldn’t even be the biggest upset of Butch Jones’ tenure in Knoxville. No. 11 South Carolina was a 7.5-point favorite at Neyland Stadium in Jones’ debut season back in 2013, and Tennessee won on Michael Palardy’s last-second field goal.
Fact is, Tennessee and Georgia traditionally play each other tough, even when one or the other is a decided favorite. There hasn’t been a blowout win in this series since Georgia defeated Derek Dooley’s inaugural team by a 41-14 count in Athens seven years ago. If you go back to 2000, when Mark Richt’s Georgia team ended Tennessee’s series-best nine-game winning streak, the average margin of victory for either team in this series has been 11.6 points. That isn’t too shabby, but it isn’t too close, either. Still, that result is skewed by a few blowouts in the 2000s — Georgia’s 41-14 win in 2003, Tennessee’s 45-19 win in 2009 (we see you, Lane Kiffin), and that 2010 win by Georgia. Since the latter, the average margin of victory has been 5.2 points.
Also not to be overlooked is the fact that, if you’re a Tennessee fan looking for an upset win in SEC play, you’re generally going to turn to Georgia first. Florida might be a monkey on the back of the Vols program, and Alabama is Alabama, but Georgia is a horse of a different color. Tennessee fans like to say that the Vols have traditionally fared well against the Bulldogs. And they aren’t wrong. Georgia was ranked No. 19 when Tennessee sprang the upset in Knoxville two years ago. And two years before that, Jones came incredibly close to getting his first signature win against a Bulldogs team that was ranked No. 6 in the country. That game went to overtime and the Vols were a Pig Howard fumble on the goal line away from winning. Even Dooley, when he couldn’t beat anyone else, was able to make the Georgia game interesting. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 5 in 2012 when Dooley’s Vols went to Athens and scored 44 points before coming up a touchdown short.
So, yes, however unlikely it might be, an upset is certainly possible on Saturday. Needless to say, a Tennessee win would take a lot of heat off Butch Jones. It would not win over the social media crowd, the ones who will not get off Jones’ back until and unless he wins an SEC championship at Tennessee, but it would certainly go a long ways towards unifying a fractured fan base and would instill renewed confidence in Jones among the people who matter most — athletics director John Currie, the UT Board of Regents and the big-money, power-wielding boosters. A win might not be enough to save Jones’ job further down the line, if Tennessee were to lose a majority of its remaining SEC games outside of Alabama, but that would be a different story for a different day.
2.) Georgia wins a close one. This is probably the most likely scenario. With its injuries and as good as Georgia seems to be playing at the moment, it’s going to be tough for Tennessee to pull out a victory. At some point, even history begins to weigh on you. Tennessee is 0-24 against Top 10 opponents since the program’s last SEC East division title in 2007, and hasn’t won a Top 10 game at home in 18 years. The Vols last win over a Top 10 opponent at Neyland Stadium was 1999, when UT topped No. 10 Georgia, 37-20.
Still, all of the above holds true. Even when Georgia has a superior team, Tennessee has played the Bulldogs close in recent years. Think 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. And while Georgia looked almost invincible in its 31-3 win over a Mississippi State team that some folks were starting to whisper about as a potential threat to Alabama’s SEC West supremacy, here’s a fact for you: take that win off the table, and few folks would be talking about Georgia’s invincibility.
The Dawgs’ other three wins to start the season — 42-14 over Samford, 20-19 over Notre Dame and 31-10 over Appalachian State — were impressive but hardly earth-shattering. Back up just a couple of weeks ago, and Tennessee fans were greeting news of Eason’s injury as just another reason to think the Vols could beat Georgia.
Some Tennessee fans have drawn a line in the sand for this game, suggesting it should be a win-or-else game for Butch Jones. That’s hardly fair, considering the worthiness of the opponent. Even if Tennessee keeps it close but loses on a coaching blunder, a la Florida, a close loss to Georgia isn’t going to cost Jones his job, nor should it. What if Tennessee rebounds to win the rest of its SEC East games, upsets LSU at Neyland Stadium and finishes the season with a 9-3 record? That certainly saves Jones’ job and would likely earn him a pay raise. So it’s too soon to start talking about an imminent coaching change, even if the Vols lose to the Dawgs.
3.) Georgia wins in a blowout. This is not an improbable scenario, sadly. The history of this series argues against it, but you can only rely on history to a certain point. In the absence of Eason, the Bulldogs’ freshman quarterback, Fromm, has played with remarkable poise (and, speaking of history, do we even need to point out how Tennessee has traditionally fared against backup quarterbacks since its last SEC championship in 1998?). Georgia’s domination of No. 17 Mississippi State was impressive, its lopsided win over Samford (an FCS opponent, but one of the FCS’s top teams) was a nice effort, and the one-point win at Notre Dame Stadium is looking more impressive all the time, as the Fighting Irish look better each week.
The reality is that Georgia enters Saturday’s game with a boatload of momentum. The Bulldogs have Nick Chubb, one of the SEC’s best offensive line coaches (oh how we wish you were still in Knoxville, Sam Pittman) and an offense that will be tough to stop. (We wish you were still here, too, Jim Chaney.) The Bulldogs’ defense is even better, ranked among the nation’s Top 10 in points allowed. Kirby Smart is looking more and more like an excellent hire for Georgia, and there is no reason to think this Georgia team can’t be the one to challenge Alabama’s SEC supremacy.
This game will tell us plenty about whether Butch Jones has lost his team, as some have suggested and as, frankly, looked possible last week. Situations like this one are where your team either rallies around you or abandons you. One of two things can happen on Saturday: Tennessee’s players can come out and play like gangbusters, which might not be enough to win but which would be evident in their effort, or they can come out and lay down, in which case they would get trounced by an athletically superior Georgia team.
My gut feeling is that the former will happen; Tennessee players will come out with a chip on their shoulder and play in defense of their coach as much as anything. If, though, it turns out to be the latter, the situation in Knoxville is going to get ugly in a hurry.
Either way, a blowout loss to Georgia is going to crank up the pressure immensely on Jones. He isn’t in danger of being fired next week, regardless of what anyone thinks, unless there are circumstances playing out behind the scenes that we aren’t aware of.
But here’s the skinny on this game against Georgia: a loss — regardless of the margin — makes the next game against South Carolina a must-win for Jones. Even if Tennessee keeps this game close, losing the South Carolina game to follow it up would probably push Jones to the brink of a place from which he cannot return, regardless of what happens in the second half of the season. If this game is a blowout, and is followed up with a loss to South Carolina, the wheels are going to start coming off.