Wondering when — or if — Butch Jones might lose his job as the University of Tennessee’s head football coach? Circle the Vols’ Halloween weekend game at Kentucky.
It’s a storyline that some are tired of hearing about, and one that many UT fans would rather not talk about, but it’s a storyline that is dominating the Vols’ young season and will continue to for the foreseeable future: will Butch Jones be fired? And, if so, when?
Some of the talking heads around Knoxville who are pushing for Jones to be fired continue to promote the narrative that he might be canned before Tennessee welcomes South Carolina to Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 14 (12 p.m., SEC Network).
If the Georgia game was the determining factor in Jones’ future with the Vols, athletics director John Currie would have made that announcement on Sunday or Monday. But the fact remains that Jones was never going to be fired after the game against the Bulldogs. That game was never an ultimatum on Jones’ fate. Win, lose or draw, Jones was always going to be Tennessee’s coach against South Carolina.
I wrote last week that a blowout loss to Georgia would likely mean that we all witnessed the beginning of the end of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee. I still believe that to be the case, but not necessarily because Currie has decided he’s going to fire Jones; to the contrary, I believe Jones is still coaching for his job, can still save his job. But the ugly loss took this thing so far off the rails that I don’t think Jones is capable of getting it back on track. The negativity among the fan base, the second-guessing within the staff and the rattled confidence of the players is just too much to overcome at this point.
Still, Jones is going to be the coach against South Carolina. And as I wrote earlier this week, Tennessee could hypothetically finish the season with a 9-3 record, which would save Jones’ job. No team on the schedule, sans Alabama, is unbeatable. Of course, no team on the schedule is a sure win for Tennessee, either, and just as the Vols could finish with a 9-3 record, they could also finish with a 3-9 record.
But with the exception of Alabama, and perhaps Kentucky, Tennessee will have a better than 50/50 shot of beating any team left on its schedule, if Jones can rally his troops. That’s a big “if” at this point, but even the Tennessee team that showed up against Georgia on Saturday will be competitive in its remaining games, with the exception of the Oct. 21 trip to Tuscaloosa. And remember this: Jones doesn’t have to go 9-3 to save his job. An 8-4 record would probably do the trick just fine.
So that’s where things stand as Tennessee prepares to welcome Will Muschamp — who, incidentally, has never lost to the Vols as a head coach.
We can say with 100 percent certainty that Jones will be the coach for Tennessee’s game against the Gamecocks. Frankly, that was never in question. If the Vols lose to South Carolina, I’m not going to be willing to bet that Jones is still coaching his team at Alabama the following week, but chances seem good that he will be. If the Gamecocks win in a blowout — say something to the tune of 35-14 — then it may be Katy-bar-the-door.
Barring a blowout loss, which seems unlikely, my thinking is that Jones is still the Vols’ coach when UT travels to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 21. And, clearly, the Alabama game isn’t going to change things. The Crimson Tide could drum the Vols by 50 points, and Jones would not be fired.
That brings us to the Oct. 28 game against Kentucky. If Tennessee has already lost to South Carolina and Alabama, and also loses at Kentucky, Jones will not survive the weekend. He will be 3-5 going into November, the fan base will be in full revolt, and Currie will likely be having a press conference by Halloween Eve.
That’s interesting, because most of us agreed prior to the start of the season that a 7-5 record would be enough to save Jones’ job. Even if Tennessee loses the next three, a 7-5 finish is still possible, because the schedule gets even easier in November. But, at this point, the pressure is so great that Jones would likely not survive the 3-5 start to have a shot at a strong finish.
For that matter, 8-4 may not even be enough to save Jones’ job at this point, and here’s why: What if Tennessee beats South Carolina, but loses to Alabama and Kentucky? The Vols would close out the month of October with a 4-4 record, and would be left with four very winnable games in November. But can Jones survive a loss to Kentucky even if he defeats South Carolina? Maybe not.
Unless Currie is 100 percent sold on the belief that Jones is his guy beyond this season — and if that were the case, Currie would have given Jones a vote of confidence by now; his silence is telling — then Currie is already busy doing his preliminary legwork as he moves towards the possibility of having to make a change. What happens if Currie is getting feedback from his feelers that lets him know his top target is obtainable? At that point, might a loss to Kentucky and a 4-4 record through October be enough to convince him to go ahead and pull the plug? It just might be. Remember, the NCAA’s new early signing period kicks in this winter, which will put greater pressure on athletics directors to make coaching changes sooner.
On the other hand, if Jones beats South Carolina and Kentucky, and closes out October with a 5-3 record, he isn’t going anywhere at that point, and what happens in the month of November will ultimately determine his fate.
So that’s where we are as Butch Jones enters the critical month of October. Barring a disastrous — and, frankly, unlikely — meltdown against South Carolina, the growing portion of the fan base anxious for a change are going to have to wait until at least Halloween weekend.