Ten months into his tenure as Tennessee's football coach, Butch Jones has galvanized a starving fan base wanting to grasp anything positive.
Though the Vols sit at 3-3 midway through yet another rebuilding season, excitement and hope permeates the program.
UT's recruiting class is currently rated second on Rivals and third on 247Sports. The Vols just broke out their "Smokey gray" uniforms and nearly pulled off an upset of SEC rival Georgia. And there is a considerable amount of national press that Jones may have UT finally back on the path to prominence, especially after that game against UGA.
The first-year coach has excelled off the field, but with that excitement brings on-field expectations.
That's why it's essential Jones bottles that buzz and capitalizes with a bowl berth. Without that final first step—a la Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels' 2012 season—all that goodwill will, fair or not, be forgotten.
Never mind that this Tennessee team has less talent and depth than any in recent memory. Fans are fed up with losing.
With a loss to Alabama likely, failure to make a bowl game means UT would have won just two of remaining games against South Carolina, Missouri, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. That's unacceptable at UT.
Without a bowl bid, it's just another disappointing season in a long line of them.
Despite going 31-37 and enduring four head coaches since 2008, the worst record UT had during that span is 5-7 three different times. These fans are used to being close and coming up short.
That's not to say Jones' job is in any danger if the Vols aren't in the postseason; far from it. He's athletic director Dave Hart's hire, and Hart couldn't be happier with the progress that's been made.
Hart discussed Jones surpassing expectations with GoVols247's Wes Rucker in an exclusive July interview (subscription):
I think the speed at which the traction (Butch has gotten in the program) has occurred has been a surprise. I think in time, I was absolutely confident and would have expected that we would get traction and begin making progress under Butch’s leadership. But, you know ... he’s come in here and has ... worked exceptionally hard to galvanize all the constituents who comprise the Tennessee football family—internally and externally.
... This team will have to overachieve to be successful. Can they overachieve? Absolutely, they can. And believe me, I think we’ve got some good football players, and I think they’re excited, so please take that in the vein it’s intended. But we’re gonna line up against five of the top 12 teams in the country preseason, so that’s a challenge. But Butch has embraced that challenge as an opportunity, and our team is embracing that as an opportunity.
But this team will have to overachieve. But I think they will for this season: I think they’ll be fundamentally sound, they’ll be well-coached, and I think this team will play extremely hard on every snap.
Despite supreme confidence from Hart, perception remains important—to fans, to media, to players and to prospective players. Ole Miss is the perfect recent example.
The Rebels struggled mightily at times last season, but they rebounded from three consecutive late-season losses to beat Mississippi State and get a bid to the BBVA Compass Bowl, where they beat Pittsburgh 38-17 to finish 7-6.
Freeze turned that momentum into a consensus top-five recruiting class that featured top prospects like 5-star offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, 5-star receiver Laquon Treadwell, 4-star safety Tony Conner and the nation's top-ranked player, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who joined his brother Denzel in Dixie.
According to CNNSI's Andy Staples' National Signing Day feature on the Rebs' surge, Freeze believes he wouldn't have signed the class he did without the momentum of a frantic finish:
The Nkemdiche family told Freeze up front that he would have no chance of landing Robert if the team didn't show marked improvement. The Rebels would at least have to make a bowl game. So in November, as 5-6 Ole Miss prepared to play rival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, the coaching staff knew what rode on the outcome of the game. Robert had decommitted from Clemson, but to have a shot against LSU and Alabama, the Rebels would have to win the Egg Bowl and earn postseason eligibility.
Ole Miss came through, snapping a three-year losing streak to the Bulldogs with a 41-24 win. Fans stormed the field for a rare moment in Oxford when the party expands into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Among those celebrating on the field was Robert Nkemdiche, who by that time was sold on the idea of playing alongside his brother in Oxford.
From a recruiting perspective, UT appears in strong shape with the 2014 class. The Vols have 26 committed players, and they've built a strong rapport with one another through coordinated visits and across social media.
There is also an inordinate amount of in-state players and legacies—prospects who've had family members play for UT in the past. Still, that doesn't make the Vols immune to losing players, as evidenced by this week's decommitment of 4-star wide receiver Eric Lauderdale.
While there probably won't be a mass exodus of commitments regardless of what happens, a bowl berth would go a long way in helping Tennessee land some top remaining difference-makers, such as 4-star receiver Josh Malone, 4-star lineman Charles Mosley and 5-star linebacker Clifton Garrett.
The Vols continue to sizzle on the recruiting trail. They've received pledges from two of their top targets in the past week, getting 4-star junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and 4-star in-state defensive lineman Derek Barnett to pull the trigger.
They need to hang on to these types of immediate-impact players, and if they do, a class like this year's is the perfect start to turning the program around for the long haul.
Effects of the failure to make a bowl also could bleed into next year, as well. Given former coach Derek Dooley's recruiting misses and attrition from the roster, the Vols are in the midst of a difficult two-year window of roster rebuilding.
This season, UT is relying heavily on freshmen to replace skill players such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera. Next year, the Vols will have some experience there because of taking lumps this season, but there will be depth issues along both fronts.
Tennessee stands to lose its entire starting offensive line if junior left tackle Antonio Richardson—potentially a high draft pick—elects to leave school early. UT also will lose six defensive linemen, including all four starters, as well as five linebackers.
That's not a promising formula for winning big next year, either. Especially considering the Vols are scheduled to travel to Norman for an out-of-conference tilt against Oklahoma and rotate in talented Ole Miss to go along with their regular murderer's row schedule.
The bottom line is it's going to be tough to get to that six-win mark this year and next. While it's easy for most rational UT fans to say they know it will take Jones a little while to rebuild from the failed tenures of Lane Kiffin and Dooley, everybody wants to win now.
In the shark-tank SEC, where football is the biggest business, winning quickly is a necessity.
Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the current SEC members have had 42 coaches combined. Twenty-four of them qualified for a bowl game their first season. The tenures of those coaches who were bowl-eligible that first year were an average of nearly a year longer than those who didn't qualify.
Coaches who qualified for a bowl during their first season stayed at that school an average of 6.25 seasons, whereas coaches who failed to qualify were retained an average of 5.38 years.
If Jones happens to start his UT career with a pair of losing seasons, the honeymoon will long be over. That's why it's key for the Vols to close this season with at least three more victories.
It's within grasp, and the Vols seem to have a renewed confidence in themselves after taking Georgia to the brink before enduring yet another tough loss.
This team says the right things, but they have to break through with wins or the words mean little. Said A.J. Johnson after the UGA loss:
I don't feel like anybody has to believe in curses. They just made a play when they needed to. It was a close game. We fought. Unfortunately, we didn't get the last break. I don't think it will be tough (to move on). We have a snap-and-clear mentality. What happened happened. We'll move on to the next team and the next mission we have to accomplish.
That next mission is a key building block for the future.
All statistics were personally obtained by researching official SEC team sites and coaching records and crunching numbers.