Tennessee Football: Can Butch Jones Lead the Volunteers Back to Relevance?
It was not that long ago that people respected the power of the Tennessee brand. All you had to do was look at Neyland Stadium, which is a fortress along the Tennessee River, and you knew the Volunteers were a member of college football's elite.
However, over the past five seasons, the Tennessee Volunteers have had three different head coaches and a dismal 28-34 record—includesing a 12-28 record in the SEC.
That's not the kind a stretch fit for a program which is 11th overall and second in the SEC in all-time wins.
The downfall began with the controversial firing of longtime head coach Phil Fulmer in 2008. The Volunteers went after the young and exciting Lane Kiffin, but that experiment only lasted one season before Kiffin bolted for USC.
The problem was that Kiffin left behind a major mess despite his short tenure, so the Vols tried to go after the anti-Kiffin in head coach Derek Dooley. Dooley was nothing like the arrogant coach he replaced. Instead he was a humble, articulate and by-the-letter guy.
There was only one problem: He had no track record of success.
Dooley had previously coached at Louisiana Tech, where he had also served as Athletic Director. However, the height of his coaching career was an eight-win season sandwiched by two losing seasons.
Dooley inherited a mess, but why did anyone think he was the answer coming off a 4-8 season in the WAC?
Dooley was fired in 2012 after compiling a 15-21 record over three seasons.
Since Dooley took over, the landscape of college football has changed dramatically around the Vols. Not only are all of their out-of-state rivals competing for BCS bowls, their in-state rivals, the Vanderbilt Commodores, have taken the mantle as the team to beat in the state of Tennessee.
The Volunteers had to do something and do it quick before they became permanent dwellers in the land of mediocrity.
There were rumors of several big-name coaches who were interested, including former NFL coach Jon Gruden, per Stephen Hargis of Times Free Press. However, none of those panned out. This time, instead of panicking with a bad hire, the Vols searched for a coach on the rise with some moderate success.
On December 7, 2012, Butch Jones was introduced as the 23rd head football coach in the Tennessee Volunteers' proud history.
Jones did not draw an easy hand, however. His teams lack the depth and playmakers that the elite teams in the SEC have. Moreover, Tennessee is not the recruiting base that Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas or even Alabama are.
Nevertheless, Jones has hit the ground running and has already gathered a recruiting class that currently sits at No.1 on Rivals.com.
For the first time in years, the momentum is shifting in favor of the Tennessee Volunteers. But can he keep the momentum flowing when the football season starts?
Tennessee will likely start the season 2-0. However, after those two games, it has to face Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama in five of its following six games. The Vols could be staring at a 3-5 record.
They finish the season against Vanderbilt, Missouri, Auburn and Kentucky. While all of those games are winnable, none are guaranteed.
If Jones and the Vols are only able to win four or five games this season, the momentum will be hard to maintain.
At the same time, if they are able to go to a bowl game, look for the Tennessee turnaround to begin to pick up steam.
How many games will the Vols win this season?
The Vols do have something going for them this season that they have not in a few seasons: a couch who has had success on the college level. Jones has a career record of 50-27, with five winning seasons in his six years as a head coach.
Critics will argue that he has not done it in a big-time conference. However, you cannot ignore the fact that he has led the Cincinnati Bearcats and Central Michigan Chippewas to Top 25 rankings in three of his six seasons.
While Jones is not the sexy hire a Gruden would had been, I think the Vols got it right this time.
Fans will need to be patient and Jones is going to need to produce on the field, but this could be the first step back to big-boy football.
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