Strolling around Vol Twitter on Sunday, it seemed that there were quite a few people in the “Fire Butch Jones” camp who were genuinely disappointed — some even in disbelief — that Tennessee athletics director John Currie had not scheduled a new conference for Sunday or Monday to announce a coaching change.
At some point in the run-up to the Georgia game, a segment of the Tennessee fan base convinced themselves that a loss to the Bulldogs would result in Jones’ immediate termination. Perhaps that was because some of the national writers — like CBS Sports’ Barrett Sallee — were musing that it could happen, or perhaps it was wishful thinking.
Here’s the thing: Butch Jones isn’t going to be fired this week. He was never going to be fired this week. The Georgia game was not an ultimatum on Jones’ future as Tennessee’s football coach. It wasn’t difficult to envision a scenario where an upset win over the Bulldogs didn’t save his job at the end of the season, and it isn’t difficult to envision a scenario where the loss doesn’t cost him his job at the end of the season.
I said last week that a blowout loss would likely be the beginning of the end of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee. I still feel that way. It’s hard to come away from Saturday’s 41-0 loss to Georgia not feeling like Jones’ days are numbered, for a variety of reasons. With each loss, the “noise in the system” becomes more oppressing, harder to ignore. Supporters of Jones would use this as an argument that those making the noise are hurting the team, or hurting recruiting. That’s an unfair argument. What’s happening at Tennessee now is part of the natural cycle of big-time college football, at least in this modern era. Fans want to win, pay to see wins, and are going to grumble. The media is going to speculate, because those guys have a job to do. There’s nothing wrong with either. But the swirling questions about the head coach’s job security reach far beyond the players. If you’re an assistant coach at Tennessee, is your undivided attention turned towards preparing your position group for South Carolina, or is a part of you eyeing other job possibilities that might be out there at the end of the season?
So, yes, I believe we’ve seen the beginning of the end of Butch Jones’ tenure in Knoxville. But he isn’t going to be fired this week or next week. If he loses to South Carolina, I’m less inclined to speculate, but my gut feeling is that regardless of what happens, Currie isn’t going to pull the trigger on a coaching change until at least the end of the month.
That’s four weeks. And there is a lot of football to be played between now and then. Don’t think those games can’t influence Currie’s decision.
The truth is that Tennessee could easily finish 9-3, with its only other loss coming at Alabama. Every other team on the schedule is winnable. It was easy to pencil in LSU as a loss before the season began, but the Tigers don’t even look like the toughest non-Alabama opponent left on the schedule at this point. The point is simply this: the back-end of the schedule is much lighter than the front-end. And a 9-3 season would not only save Jones’ job, but likely earn him a restructured contract.
Of course, Tennessee’s schedule was also front-loaded in 2016, and the Vols lost to South Carolina and Vanderbilt on the back-end. Even if you chalk up those losses as the results of injuries, this year’s Tennessee team also has a serious injury problem. While the Vols could easily finish 9-3, they could also finish 3-9. There are no guaranteed wins left on the schedule, especially given the way UT’s offense is performing. Southern Miss is the closest thing to a sure win, but the Golden Eagles gave Kentucky fits in the season-opener, and the Wildcats might be the toughest non-Alabama opponent remaining for Tennessee.
Tennessee’s no more likely to finish 3-9 than it is to finish 9-3. But in determining Jones’ fate, the Vols don’t have to finish at either extreme. An 8-4 season would likely save Jones’ job, and a 7-5 season might. Anything less than that, and all bets are off.
Part of Jones’ problem is the deck is still stacked against him. The three toughest opponents remaining on the schedule may very well be the next three — South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky, in that order. If Tennessee loses all of them and limps into Halloween with a 3-5 record, it’s not at all difficult to envision John Currie scheduling that press conference. The fan base will be in full revolt by that point and there might not be more than 75,000 people show up for the Vols’ game against Southern Miss if a change isn’t made.
But what if Tennessee wins two of the next three? If the Vols beat South Carolina and Kentucky, the question of Jones’ future shifts to what happens in November — regardless of what happens against Alabama. It doesn’t matter if Nick Saban drums Tennessee by 50 points, Jones’ job isn’t going to be in immediate jeopardy if he gets to Halloween with a 5-3 record.
We’re talking hypotheticals, of course, and Tennessee isn’t going to accomplish anything it hopes to accomplish until and unless it finds a way to fix its woeful offense. The Vols have converted eight of their last 30 third downs, have only gained 205 yards since the second quarter of the UMass game, and haven’t scored a touchdown in the same length of time. It is as bad a stretch for the UT offense as anyone can remember, even when disgraced offensive coordinators like Randy Sanders and Dave Clawson were at the helm.
But Tennessee knows it has the weapons. John Kelly is one of the SEC’s top runningbacks. Jarrett Guarantano hasn’t looked particularly sharp in limited game action this season but he’s still a former 5-star recruit and inserting him into the starting lineup — if that is indeed what happens, and most agree that it just might be — could be the spark that UT needs to get its offense back on track. Tennessee’s defense, so much maligned after that season-opener against Georgia Tech, is starting to look like a formidable unit. With a little offense to help out the defense, predicting the Vols’ future becomes a little tougher.
What does it all mean? It means that South Carolina is the biggest game of Jones’ coaching tenure at Tennessee. Will Jones be fired immediately if he loses to the Gamecocks? Maybe not. But maybe. And that was never going to happen after the Georgia game.