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The case for change: Tennessee is losing ground in the SEC East

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It was hardly a surprise to see Georgia walk out of Neyland Stadium with a win over Tennessee Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t even a surprise to see the Bulldogs win convincingly; they entered Saturday’s game with a load of momentum and a defense that is among the best in college football.

But the ease of Georgia’s 41-0 win — Tennessee’s first shutout loss in 23 years and the worst loss in the history of Neyland Stadium, which dates back to 1921 — was cause for pause at a school with a traditionally proud football program that is used to playing a key role in how the Southeastern Conference’s champions are crowned.

Frankly, that effort — along with the rest of the mounting evidence that has accumulated to date — is reason to consider that Butch Jones’ is at the end of his leash as the head football coach in Knoxville.

Make no mistake: there are always going to be folks who emerge from the woodwork to call for the head coach’s job after disappointing losses, especially losses to key rivals. But in 2015, when Tennessee blew a two-touchdown lead at Florida, the grumbling was just the fruits of gameday disappointment. The same was true in 2014, when a fumble in the end zone prevented Tennessee from upsetting Georgia in Athens.

Coaching success is determined by how programs are performing against their goals — which, for most teams, means how they’re performing against their rivals and in their conference. And in both 2014 and 2015, Butch Jones’ Tennessee squads were making progress on those goals.

In 2017, progress is being lost.

Derek Dooley was given only three years to prove his mettle before being shown the door because it was woefully apparent by 2012 that the bar was not being raised under his guidance. Dooley’s Tennessee teams went just 4-19 in SEC play and declined each season. His inaugural team finished conference play with a 3-5 record in 2010. Over the next two seasons, his teams were just 1-14 in SEC games.

Dooley was not making headway in the SEC East. Because of that, Butch Jones inherited an impaired team that was in no shape to challenge either its rivals or its conference leaders. Jones’ first team was 2-6 in SEC play — bad by Tennessee standards, but an improvement from Dooley’s efforts. His second team also had a losing record in conference play, 3-5. But the progress was still evident.

Fast-forward to 2016, which was supposed to be the year for Tennessee’s newly-rebuilt program to return to contention in the SEC East. The Vols, in fact, were an overwhelming favorite to win the East. They had gotten over the Georgia hump in 2015, and finally got the Florida monkey off their back early in the 2016 season. But the end result was a disappointing 4-4 conference record that included losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

There had been cracks in the facade earlier in the Jones era: blowing two-touchdown leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas in 2015; evidence of poor in-game decisions in 2013 and 2014. But those were masked by his program’s year-over-year improvements. Those improvements ground to a halt in 2016. In fact, Tennessee actually finished worse in conference play in 2016 than in 2015.

The narrative that was taking shape late in the 2016 season and throughout the off-season was built around the supposition that Jones has plateaued; that he’ll be a solid eight-win coach in the SEC but unable to take the next step, which is to win championships.

Halfway through the 2017 season, the narrative has shifted. And that’s what has Jones in hot water, as far as a plurality of the Tennessee fan base is concerned. Not only has Jones plateaued, but the Vols are actually losing ground in the SEC East.

Florida’s Jim McElwain has been on the job for two seasons in Gainesville. He’s won the SEC East both years, representing the division in the SEC Championship Game. The only reason he won’t win it for a third year, if he is in fact unsuccessful, is because Kirby Smart is quickly making strides at Georgia. Smart, in just his second season and with a freshman quarterback, invaded Knoxville on Saturday and handed Jones’ Vols one of their worst defeats ever.

This is where the rebuilding excuse crashes and burns for the final time. Jones is in his fifth season as a head coach. His first recruiting class has already graduated, except for a few lingering redshirts. Players from his first Top 5 recruiting class have either been lost to attrition or are nearing the end of their eligibility. Tennessee should be winning now. There’s no revisionist history going on here; Butch Jones did inherit a dumpster fire, but that was an eternity ago, as the clock ticks in college football. Jake Fromm, the freshman quarterback who led Georgia to a 41-0 victory at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, was an eighth grader when Dooley was fired and Jones was hired at Tennessee.

After five years, this is the reality: Florida’s McElwain won the SEC East in his first two seasons. Georgia’s Smart appears set to win the SEC East in his second season. Jones will not have won the East in five seasons, despite four years of recruiting classes that have averaged near the nation’s Top 10.

What’s worse, Florida and Georgia are improving while Tennessee is stuck in neutral.

Georgia made a significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Smart era and appears set to challenge Alabama for SEC supremacy. Tennessee, in Year 5 of the Butch Jones era, ranks 12th out of 14 SEC teams in the latest SEC power rankings.

Tennessee’s offense, so prolific just a year ago, is abysmal in 2017. Something is missing, and it’s more than the loss of Josh Dobbs and Alvin Kamara to the NFL, more even than the loss of Mike DeBord to Indiana. The Vols currently rank 107th in the nation in total offense, 98th in scoring offense. They haven’t scored in over six quarters, have converted just eight of their last 30 third downs and have gained only 205 yards since halftime of their game against Massachusetts.

That isn’t progress. That’s losing ground.

Maybe it’s unfair that just 13 months ago the narrative was that Jones finally had Tennessee poised to win the SEC East and now, just 13 months later, the narrative is that Jones’ time in Knoxville has run out. But that’s life in the SEC. The coaching lifespan is a short one in this league, which is why coaches here, on average, make more money than in any other conference. Life in the SEC dictates that you’re doing one of two things: you’re constantly improving, or you’re being left in the dust.

Five games into Year 5 of the Butch Jones era, it’s become undeniable that Tennessee is being left in the dust.

That is reason enough for change. Because there’s another undeniable fact, one that applies not just to SEC football but to any competitive facet of life: once change becomes inevitable, delaying it only causes you to fall further behind. Tennessee is an attractive coaching destination. Just ask Jones, who turned down a chance to go to Colorado on the assumption that the Vols would make him an offer. But there are only so many attractive coaches available. College football is an arms race. And sometimes, winning an arms race means getting to the hotshot nuclear physicist before the Soviets do.

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