After Tennessee’s 29-26 loss at Kentucky on Saturday, there’s no longer a solid argument for keeping Butch Jones at the helm in Knoxville.
Jones is a dead man walking at Tennessee. That’s inevitable. You know it, I know it, he knows it and John Currie knows it.
So why postpone it?
Prior to Saturday’s game, I criticized Tennessee fans who were raking Currie over the coals for his perceived inaction. Patience, I preached, is imperative. Let the process play out. Understand that just because Currie is tweeting about tennis instead of football doesn’t mean that football isn’t dominating the lion’s share of his time.
Even if Jones is still coaching when Southern Miss visits Neyland Stadium in one week, it’s still safe to assume the process is taking place and that football is at the forefront of Currie’s mind.
But there’s no point in bringing Jones back to Neyland Stadium. It isn’t fair to the fans, it isn’t fair to the players, it isn’t even fair to Jones.
An apathetic fan base is going to leave at least 20,000 empty seats in Neyland Stadium for homecoming. Those who are there are going to half-heartedly boo Jones as starting lineups are announced in pregame. It hardly seems worth it.
Prior to Saturday’s game against Kentucky, it made sense — at least for the sake of theoretical arguments — to leave Jones in place because that represented the best opportunity for Tennessee to salvage a bowl game. Much like Dave Hart did with Derek Dooley in 2012, you leave him until and unless it becomes obvious that bowl eligibility has been flushed. Then you make the change.
But after seeing Tennessee struggle to put away a lifeless Kentucky team on Saturday and eventually find a way to lose a game the Vols should’ve won convincingly, bowl eligibility seems to be a distant afterthought.
Kentucky appeared uninspired for much of Saturday’s game. The Wildcats’ quarterback — Stephen Johnson — threw for fewer than 50 yards. The Wildcats fumbled the ball away to Tennessee four times. They had the ball for fewer than 10 minutes in the second half.
Yet Kentucky still found a way to win the game against an equally uninspired Tennessee team, which dominated the second half yet clung to a lead of only 26-21 as the Wildcats began their final drive with five minutes left on the clock. It was a drive that would lead the ‘Cats to just their second victory over the Vols in 33 years, and a drive that should guarantee Jones’ early exit.
Who Tennessee would appoint as an interim coach for the final four games is a big question mark, but it hardly seems to matter. Brady Hoke has head coaching experience. Larry Scott was an interim at Miami. Steve Stripling was interim for bowl games at both of Jones’ previous stops.
Maybe that’s what you do: follow the internet rumors and promote Stripling. It would be terribly ironic if Stripling, who has followed Jones from the beginning, took over on an interim basis at Tennessee after Jones was fired. At their previous stops, Stripling took over on an interim basis after Jones found a better job.
Or maybe you go a completely different route and give it to Bob Shoop.
Does it matter? Can it get any worse?
Tennessee owes it to its players to make the rest of the season as good as possible. That’s especially true for the seniors on Team 121, the ones who have one month of football left to play in their life. But is “as good as possible” going to happen with Jones at the helm? Will Tennessee stand a better shot of a November rally with Jones out of the picture?
The Vols are now 0-5 in SEC play. They just ended a 15-quarter streak without an offensive touchdown. It was the longest such streak of any Power 5 team in the past 10 years, and appears to have been Tennessee’s longest streak since before World War II. After back-to-back nine-win seasons, the program has regressed at a dizzying pace, and is now right back where it was in 2012, at least in terms of the product on the field. There is no guarantee this Tennessee team can beat Southern Miss next week, let alone Missouri or Vanderbilt in the weeks after that. And that’s to say nothing of LSU.
We know Jones is gone, but until now it has been assumed that he might get to finish out the season, or at least make it until the week before Thanksgiving.
But at this point there’s little point in keeping up the charade. And plenty of reason to put a stop to it.
Two key developments on Saturday require action.
One was a since-deleted tweet by five-star recruit Cade Mays. A senior at Knoxville Catholic, Mays is one of the nation’s most coveted linemen in the Class of 2018. He has been committed to Tennessee for two years, since he was just a sophomore. And on Saturday he tweeted a picture of himself in Clemson garb, where he’s enjoying an official visit this weekend. What did it mean? Maybe a lot. Maybe nothing. Probably nothing, since Mays later deleted it. But it was a red flag, especially considering Mays has always liked Clemson and was rumored to be considering a decommitment earlier this season. Tennessee has lost five-star recruits — even one who played high school ball in the shadows of Neyland Stadium — to Clemson’s Dabo Swinney already. But to lose Mays, a legacy recruit whose father was an All-SEC lineman at Tennessee and who has been committed to the Vols for two years, would be a slap in the face.
The other was the reports that Florida is working on its future without Jim McElwain. The Gators are reportedly looking at the opportunity to fire McElwain for cause after the head coach appeared to lie about death threats earlier in the week. His Gators were drubbed by Georgia on Saturday, 42-7, to drop to 3-4 on the season. Even before that happened, rumors of Mac’s demise were swirling. If Florida fires McElwain this weekend, the Gators will beat Tennessee into the coaching market, and be able to begin the process of snatching up a high-profile coach who may or may not be someone on Currie’s short list.
For these reasons, if for no other, it’s time.
All Things Vol wrote prior to the Georgia game that the Kentucky game was the one to circle if you were interested in when changes might be made. They weren’t going to be made after the Georgia game, regardless of how bad that one turned out to be. They weren’t going to be made after the South Carolina game, and they weren’t going to be made after the Alabama game. But if Tennessee lost to Kentucky, all bets would be off.
Still, we didn’t truly believe it necessary to fire Jones, even if he lost all four games. Yet, here we are. Jones has lost all four games. The team seems to be regressing with each passing week. Fan anger is quickly turning to apathy. Recruits are decommitting. Florida is preparing to become a major fly in the coaching-change ointment.