Tennessee football coach Butch Jones won't lose his job if he loses to Vanderbilt on Saturday, but that doesn't diminish the significance of this game for the future of the Volunteers or their first-year coach.
The immediate ramifications of a loss are clear: UT will fail to make a bowl game for the third consecutive season.
But it's the unrest and uncertainty that will settle into the program if the Vols lose to Vanderbilt that could ultimately jeopardize Jones' career and what he wants to build in Knoxville.
Vanderbilt dominated UT 41-18 last season in a game that was the final note in Derek Dooley's swan song. Consistently losing to Little Brother simply won't be tolerated at a program of Tennessee's ilk.
The last time UT lost consecutive games to Vandy was 1925-26, the latter of which was General Robert Neyland's first season in Knoxville. This is Jones' first opportunity to ensure that losing to the 'Dores won't be the norm.
Winning back the state of Tennessee is a big litmus test early in Jones' tenure, and a failure in his first attempt would set a sour precedent, for better or worse.
A setback would effectively end the new-coach honeymoon.
Jones is incredibly intelligent when it comes to public relations, so he smartly sidestepped the question of large-scale importance during Monday's teleconference, as reported by UTSports.com.
Acknowledging Vandy as a long-term threat makes any UT fan bristle, despite the fact that VU has been a better program than Tennessee during the past three years. The Commodores' win over Kentucky last Saturday made them bowl-eligible for the third consecutive season—a first in school history.
It is a big game, it is a critical game because it is the next game on our schedule. We are working to get to win number five. Obviously there are some other factors that go involved with that, we have a tremendous amount of respect for what they have been able to accomplish and Coach Franklin. Like I have said, I have been able to watch it from a far, I have been able to compete against them and some friends on that staff. For us, it is just another opportunity to compete and go out there and work to play our best football game, which we have yet to play to date.
The Vanderbilt game is also critical for recruiting. Despite its late-season struggles, UT hasn't seen any drop off in this year's class. The Vols are still surging with 31 public commitments in a class that is ranked second on 247Sports.
Even if this year's class wasn't directly affected by a loss to Vandy, it could provide some long-term recruiting concerns. Vanderbilt's recent success has made it a constant gnat in the ear of the Vols' recruiting efforts.
Though Tennessee has consistently beaten the Commodores in head-to-head battles for top in-state recruits this season, James Franklin has won his share recently. Offensive lineman Andrew Jelks, running back Brian Kimbrow and linebacker Zach Cunningham all have chosen VU over UT in the past couple seasons.
The Vols flexed their muscle in-state this year, receiving commitments from Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett, RaShaan Gaulden, Vic Wharton and Todd Kelly Jr., all of which had offers from Vanderbilt. Even so, Mid-State defensive lineman Michael Sawyers and defensive back Emmanuel Smith committed to Vandy over UT.
Tennessee is a state that is producing more and more top-level talent every year, and Jones has put a major emphasis on in-state recruiting from the time he was hired.
As long as Franklin is in Nashville, UT and VU will battle for the state's top prospects, and winning this game is an opportunity to keep burying Vanderbilt on the recruiting trail. A loss would add fuel to Franklin's pitch that already has given VU more recruiting firepower than ever before.
Teams with new coaching staffs historically see a brief uptick in recruiting success because of the newness surrounding the program. In order to keep the momentum going that Jones has built in recruiting, among alumni and in the fanbase, he has to win.
There have been some memorable moments this season, from taking a good Georgia team to overtime and doing everything but win to breaking through for a "signature win" over South Carolina. But the past three forgettable games have muted the memories.
Amid a long, detailed answer given at Monday's press conference, Jones scoffed at the belief that making a bowl game is the ultimate gauge of a successful inaugural season.
We have taken monumental strides of where we are at right now than when we walked in here on December 7. Sometimes the progress isn't measured in wins, but I see the small victories each and every day. …
I have to step back and take all the emotion out of it and we are getting better each and every day. We are getting better in our mindset, our culture. So in success, yes, we need to get back to a bowl game. But I said the number one goal in moving forward is our culture, our standard of excellence had to be in place after year one.
Those program strides—and coaches—are ultimately measured by victories on the field.
Losing to either Vanderbilt or Kentucky will leave a bitter aftertaste in the wake of the 2013 season. A bowl game is a must to keep the positive perception of the program.
At this point of the rebuilding process, perception is almost as important as reality because everybody needs to see tangible evidence that UT is better than it was last year. That logical step is a bowl berth.
Senior center James Stone said Monday, according to UTSports.com: "It is extremely important to go to a bowl game. It is important for Coach Jones, the team, and the senior class. We need to do anything that we can to make a bowl game."
If not, the Vols will be stuck in yet another dismal present with the same questions surrounding the future.
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