Tennessee Football: What Butch Jones Must Accomplish in 2014
Second-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones already has a top-five Rivals recruiting class and a signature win under his belt, but his work is cut out for him during the 2014 season to maintain the program's momentum.
Since his arrival on Rocky Top in early December 2012, he has hit all the right buttons. Recruiting is reaching a level not seen since the early 2000s, the fanbase is beginning to unite, and there's a general sense that Tennessee is on its way back.
However, any SEC fan knows that success in this league is fickle and can disappear in an instant. Look no further than Florida's Will Muschamp, who appeared to be the heir apparent to Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer after leading the Gators to an 11-2 record in 2012. But one dismal 4-8 season later, Muschamp is squarely on the hot seat.
Jones may have a longer leash than Muschamp, but there are a few things he must accomplish in 2014 to remove any doubt about his job security and status as the man to bring Tennessee back to the top of the SEC.
Beat Utah State
The stage is set for one of Tennessee's biggest home openers in years.
After binging on college football from Thursday, August 28 through Saturday, August 30, the nation's eyes will turn to Knoxville when the Vols take on the Utah State Aggies during prime time on Sunday, August 31.
The good news is that the game offers excellent national exposure for Tennessee, as the matchup is the only football game, college or professional, scheduled for that day.
The bad news is that Utah State is an excellent team that won nine games last year and returns a healthy dark-horse Heisman candidate in quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
Although the Vols should emerge as the clear favorite prior to kickoff, this contest could go either way.
Tennessee's speedy defensive freshmen will likely see the field early to limit Keeton's scrambling ability, and offensive newcomers Josh Malone, Jalen Hurd and Von Pearson will need to limit their first-game jitters by stepping up and moving the chains.
Utah State is a true test for Tennessee and Jones. A win against the Aggies will give the team and coaching staff confidence throughout the season, but a loss could end the Vols' bowl game hopes long before autumn even begins.
Limit Blowout Losses
2013 had its share of ugly moments for the Vols.
First came the Oregon game. After holding off the Ducks for a half, Tennessee was severely outmatched in the third quarter, as Oregon seemed to score at will. By the fourth quarter, the Vols were in the midst of suffering one of the most lopsided losses in program history.
Then came the Alabama game, which is turning into Groundhog Day for Vols fans. The blowout in Tuscaloosa was followed by equally painful blowout losses to Missouri and Auburn.
Although Tennessee wasn't expected to win any of those games, losing by such a wide margin only highlighted how far the team has to go to become nationally relevant again.
The schedule in 2014 doesn't get any easier. The Vols trade a trip to Eugene, Oregon, with a trip to Norman to take on the Oklahoma Sooners, who are fresh off a Sugar Bowl victory.
Tennessee also travels to Athens to face a Georgia squad that sports a healthy Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall before welcoming the Florida Gators and Alabama Crimson Tide to Neyland Stadium.
Jones doesn't necessarily have to win those games, but it's vital that he limits big plays and avoids letting the scores get completely out of hand. No one likes moral victories, but sometimes even those are hard to come by when rebuilding a team from the ground up.
Pull off Another Upset Victory
In the eyes of the national media, Tennessee's last-second win over South Carolina on October 19, 2013, was notable only because it appeared to end the Gamecocks' chances of winning the SEC East.
But in Knoxville, it represented a turning point in the Vols' trajectory and the removal of a heavy and embarrassing monkey that was firmly attached to the program's back.
Prior to that win, Tennessee had not beaten a ranked team since its previous victory over South Carolina on Halloween night in 2009.
When loss after loss to ranked teams start piling up, fans, players and even coaches may begin to question the direction of the program.
Jones proved that day that his undermanned and inexperienced Vols could beat the big dogs, and he'll have every chance to shock the nation and steal another win in 2014.
Make a Bowl Game
Memories of the 2010 Music City Bowl are still fresh on the minds of Vols fans.
The game ended on a controversial call that put one second back on the clock and allowed North Carolina to kick a field goal, which sent the game into overtime and eventually into the record books as a victory for the Tar Heels.
That was Tennessee's last trip to the postseason.
Butch Jones made it clear during the 2013 season that his goal was to take Tennessee back to a bowl game, according to All For Tennessee's Zach Ragan.
However, in the Vols' second-to-last game of the 2013 season, Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette's five-yard scramble not only gave the Commodores a four-point lead with 16 seconds to go but also guaranteed Tennessee its third consecutive losing season.
The Vols' margin of error in 2014 for making a bowl game is razor-thin. The brutality of the schedule means that Tennessee not only needs to win every game it will be favored in but win the tossup games and one or two where they're underdogs just to break .500 for the year.
Teams that finish with 6-6 or 7-5 records don't get rewarded with glamorous bowl games, but at this point, any bowl game will be considered a huge success for the Vols and Jones.
Sign Another Top-10 Class
No matter what Tennessee's win-loss record is in 2014, Butch Jones's biggest and most important challenge is locking down another top recruiting class.
Despite signing a highly regarded class in February, he admitted that the Vols' toughest obstacle is finding quality depth on the roster, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel's Steve Megargee.
Indeed, Tennessee's roster still has major issues. The offensive and defensive lines, which are perhaps the most important positions in the SEC, are thin and inexperienced.
Tennessee also lacks quality depth across the board. Schools like Alabama, Georgia and LSU have depth charts full of 4- and 5-star players. But at Tennessee, when one starter heads to the bench for a breather often, a walk-on usually gets his number called.
For Jones to get Tennessee back to the top of the SEC, he needs to win recruiting battles against major programs for players of the same caliber as Drew Richmond, Kahlil McKenzie and Torrance Gibson.