Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt: Vols Must Be Careful or Loss Will Undermine Rebuild

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2013

Nov 23, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Patton Robinette (4) scores the game winning touchdown with 16 seconds left in the game against Tennessee Volunteers defensive back Brian Randolph (37) at Neyland Stadium. Vanderbilt won 14 to 10. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Filing out of a sad, stunned Neyland Stadium following Vanderbilt's 14-10 comeback win over Tennessee, an angry Volunteers fan let fly one of many critical cries that will take place in yet another long offseason.

"Give us another fancy slogan, Butch," the fan said, referring to Tennessee's normally optimistic, phrase-spinning head coach Butch Jones. "Tell us how it'll all be OK."

It was a prophetic pronouncement that probably rings truer than ever after the Vols found yet another heart-twisting way to lose. Jones has to find a way to inject positive vibes into a dejected group of players right now.

No fancy phrase is going to do that.

A loss like Saturday's can hit the reset button on many of the things this new coaching staff has instilled if they aren't careful. After all the talk of a culture change and on buying into Jones' program, the Vols are going to miss a bowl game for the third consecutive season.

Whether or not that's Jones' fault is moot. It's his job to somehow find some positive aspects and teaching points moving forward.

Nov 23, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) runs the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Neyland Stadium. Vanderbilt won 14 to 10. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Any loss to in-state Vanderbilt is bad enough. When you throw in the Commodores have now won consecutive games over UT for the first time since 1925-26, and they knocked the Vols out of a bowl for the second time in as many years, it's even worse.

But it isn't just that the Vols lost Saturday; it's how they lost that can endanger any remaining rebuilding blocks in an otherwise dismal season.

Tennessee sputtered offensively behind a miserable performance by freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs. The Vols left points on the field, missing a field goal and not even attempting another one, opting instead for a bizarre, failure of a fake. A touchdown also was wiped off the board due to a block in the back.

Then, after the defense had dominated all night, Tennessee stopped Vanderbilt on 4th-and-1 with less than a minute remaining, but a booth review overturned the spot, giving VU the ball and a first down. The Commodores made UT pay with a touchdown with just 16 seconds left on the clock.

Those are just the kinds of things that can lead to finger-pointing and questioning each other and coaches. Tennessee senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood has come to expect the worst since becoming a Vol.

Jones no doubt entered a tear-soaked locker room, and he has to make sure he doesn't lose the players in it. Seniors looking for a legacy are left with none, and the 25 freshmen who've played for UT this season will not get any bowl practice reps after next week's season-ender against Kentucky.

All that momentum UT managed to build with a signature win over South Carolina is gone. That was a big step forward in the rebuild of a proud program, but the failure to make a bowl game equals two steps backward.

Now, Jones has to keep teaching in an otherwise meaningless game against the Wildcats. He has to get his players' attention, and they've got to find a way to focus on the things on which they've improved this year and realize the biggest difference in a bad bowl and no bowl is perception.

Jones has built programs despite a disappointing first season before. His players at Cincinnati believed in the things he was teaching despite a 4-8 first season, and they bought in even when immediate results didn't occur. 

Regardless of how jaded the UT fanbase is right now, Jones must kindle that belief among the players already in his program. A losing mentality infected the football team over the past few years, and that culture can't be tolerated any longer.

By the sounds of some of the postgame locker-room comments, the players still believe. That's a very encouraging sign for the direction of the program.

Nov 23, 2013; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones disagrees with an officials call during the second quarter against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Most importantly, he has to keep this elite recruiting class he has built at UT together, keep them believing the Vols were simply undermanned talent-wise this year, and his brand has done nothing but been successful in the past.

Jones built plenty of excitement in and around the program without ever even coaching a game before the season. Now, he has to find a way to keep it going without playing in a bowl game to end it.