Tennessee's fast track to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta has turned into a train wreck that's getting worse by the day.
Losers of three straight, including an embarrassing 24-21 loss to a young South Carolina team in which the Vols managed just 297 yards, Tennessee put itself in a position where it has to win out and hope Florida loses two of its next three (at Arkansas, vs. South Carolina, at LSU) to win the division.
In the aftermath of Saturday's stunning result, junior running back Jalen Hurd—he of 2,638 career rushing yards and 20 touchdowns—decided to transfer from the program.
"I met with Jalen Hurd this morning, and we had a conversation and have a great relationship. Jalen has informed me that he intends to transfer, and I support him on that," head coach Butch Jones said on the live-streamed weekly press conference Monday. "I'm very thankful for everything that he has done for our program, but it's all about our football team and our football program and moving forward."
As John Brice of 247Sports noted on Twitter, Jones has lost quite a bit from the 2014 signing class—his first full class as the head coach of the Vols:
The tailspin, exodus and likely absence from the SEC Championship Game put an enormous amount of pressure on Jones.
Not all of it is his fault, though.
He couldn't predict injuries that have kept Hurd, fellow running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cam Sutton and a host of others out of action for various games.
But he can manage expectations. He can steer the ship. He can prepare his team properly.
He didn't Saturday, as this ridiculous quote proved, courtesy of UTSports.com.
"We learn about the value of being ready versus being prepared," Jones said.
Isn't that the coach's job on a weekly basis? After receiving a cold dose of reality in back-to-back losses to Texas A&M and Alabama prior to the bye week, isn't that the coach's job with even more time to prepare?
It absolutely is.
Consider that Jones' team squeaked by Appalachian State in the season opener thanks to a missed Mountaineers extra point and an overtime fumble recovered by Hurd for the game-winner. The Vols also needed a Hail Mary at the gun to beat what turned out to be a very mediocre Georgia team and didn't exactly dominate Ohio in a 28-19 win in Week 3.
Jones is a few bad bounces away from being in major trouble because of Tennessee's inability to put together complete games on a consistent basis when the roster was intact, major regression in October and failure to live up to the preseason hype in which it was picked to win the SEC East for the first time since 2005. He will be on thin ice heading into 2017, and he has only himself to blame.
But he's not right now.
There's no one in place to make a decision regarding Jones' future with the Vols right now, but there will be when toe meets leather next season.
The window isn't closed in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Kamara could return, fellow running back John Kelly will, Reeves-Maybin could get a medical redshirt, defensive end Derek Barnett could stay and several of his linemates are incredibly talented. Dobbs will be gone, but Quinten Dormady has potential, and former 4-star Jarrett Guarantano has been going about his business this fall while redshirting.
Tennessee has to be in the thick of the SEC East race next year. Otherwise, the combination of the Vols' 2016 struggles, a new athletic director and Jones' inability to keep stars happy will place him on perilously thin ice.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @BarrettSallee.