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‘Monumental’ improvement off the field can’t offset Dooley era-level play on it

Photo: UTSports.com

Butch Jones wasn’t wrong when he said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference that the University of Tennessee football program has “come monumental steps” over the past five years.

Jones inherited a program with an Academic Progress Rate (APR) that was garbage. The NCAA mandates that a school’s APR — which measures academic progress and student-athlete retention — remain above 930 to avoid penalties. Tennessee’s four-year APR in football is currently 972 — the best it’s ever been.

The credit goes to Jones. The credit for the improved character of the average player on Tennessee’s football roster also goes to Jones.

Ultimately, though, a high APR doesn’t fill seats at Neyland Stadium. It doesn’t convince CBS to schedule the Vols for its coveted 3:30 p.m. slot, or ESPN to pick the Vols for primetime. As long as their school isn’t being penalized for a low APR score, the average fan couldn’t care less what that score is.

That isn’t to say APR and character aren’t important. They are. But coaches are retained based on wins and losses, not academics and clean noses. This is the SEC, not high school football.

Jones knows this, which is why he added to his comments: “We also understand that love is conditional. It’s what can you do for me next?”

It is what can you do for me next. Cleaning up the APR and improving the program’s character were good achievements for Year One or Year Two. But this is Year Five, and fans expect nothing less than to be competing for divisional titles and representing the SEC East in Atlanta in early December.

Which is why Butch Jones could go from Tennessee’s current head coach to its former head coach in as few as four days.

There’s no doubt that Jones has revived a program that had reached an all-time low by the time Derek Dooley was canned in 2012. Whomever is coaching the Vols next season — it almost certainly won’t be Jones — will inherit a roster that is light years ahead of the roster Jones inherited in 2013.

But that only makes UT fans more frustrated with where things currently stand. At least Dooley had an excuse. He was a terrible recruiter, at least by SEC standards. Not that he could’ve won with a stacked roster. Remember that bungled opportunity to win in Baton Rouge in 2010?

Jones has recruited at a high level. But the current product on the field is incredibly reminiscent of the product Dooley trotted out each Saturday in 2012.

Part of that is due to injuries. That’s an undeniable fact. If Jauan Jennings, Darrin Kirkland, Todd Kelly Jr. and Evan Berry were healthy, how much better would this Tennessee team be?

But it’s also undeniable that Tennessee was never going to beat Georgia, with its second-year head coach and freshman quarterback, even with a full compliment of starters. Nor were the Vols ever going to compete with Alabama.

In Year Five, that’s a problem. The SEC East has been at an all-time low for most of the Butch Jones era, and Tennessee still hasn’t won the division. Maybe the Vols would’ve won it last year, if they could’ve stayed healthy. But even the injuries couldn’t fully excuse losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Is this 2017 Tennessee team as bad as that 2012 team? It’s hard to say for sure. The 2012 team featured a pretty decent offense, paired with a terrible defense under Sal Sunseri and an attempt at a new scheme. This year’s team is actually becoming respectable on the defensive side of the ball, despite that season-opening groan-fest in Atlanta, but couldn’t fight its way out of a wet paper bag on offense.

In truth, though? It’s easy to make an argument that the 2017 Vols are worse than the 2012 Vols.

Sure, Tennessee could wind up with a record of 8-4. (The Vols could finish 9-3, if you want to talk theoretically, but a win over Alabama would be one of the biggest upsets in college football history.) But Tennessee could also wind up with a record of 3-9.

Chances are, the Vols won’t finish quite that bad, but missing bowl eligibility isn’t at all out of the equation. If Tennessee couldn’t beat South Carolina at home, it’s hard to feel confident about its chances of winning at Kentucky next week. That would place the Vols perilously close to missing bowl eligibility. Throw in a rapidly improving LSU team and the margin for error drops to zero.

If Ed Orgeron’s Tigers manage to stay in the Top 25 until they travel to Knoxville next month, Tennessee will play four ranked teams this season. If they don’t, the Vols will play three ranked teams this season. The 2012 team, by comparison, played five ranked teams.

More importantly, the 2012 Tennessee team was competitive in defeat.

Top-ranked Alabama took the Vols to the woodshed that year, 44-13. But if Tennessee is going to avoid losing to this year’s version of the top-ranked Tide by more than in 2012, UT will have to cover the spread (+34.5) for just the second time in seven games this season.

That 2012 team gave up 51 points to Georgia and still came within a touchdown of winning (51-44). They only lost to No. 19 Mississippi State by 10 on the road, and to No. 17 South Carolina by three in Columbia.

With the exception of Alabama, the only team to blow out the 2012 Vols was Vanderbilt, which crushed Tennessee 41-18 in Nashville to seal Dooley’s fate.

As bad as Tennessee’s 2012 team was, it was always a threat to score. The closest it came to being shut out was against Alabama, which saw the Tide defense limit the Vols to 13 points. The 2017 team hasn’t scored a point since Sept. 23. It hasn’t found the end zone in more than 10 quarters, and has scored touchdowns in just one out of 12 quarters in SEC play.

That’s something that academics and character can’t overcome. Not in a sport — and in an era — where wins trump all else.

After back-to-back nine-win seasons, no one expected to be comparing Butch Jones to Derek Dooley — in spite of the losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt last year, and blowing two-touchdown leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas the year before that.

Yet, here we are. In 2017, the product on the field is performing on a level similar to where it was in 2012. It was a result that doomed Dooley and his staff of seven first-year assistant coaches back then, and it is looking increasingly likely that it’s a result that will doom Jones and his staff of seven first-year assistants now.

Push has come to shove, and academic progress and improved character apparently won’t save Butch Jones from the same fate as Derek Dooley.

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