College football coaches aren’t ever going to admit to looking down the schedule and circling the games that will define a season.
So first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones isn’t going to tell you that home games against Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama are in the bag, but they better be.
Nor is he going to tell you that games at Oregon, Florida and Alabama are near-certain defeats, but in quiet moments even he must know.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones watches during the first NCAA college football practice of the season at Haslam Field in Knoxville earlier this month. Jones is charged with bringing the Volunteers back to respectability this season.
(AP Photo/The Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young)
Anyway, that’s half the Vols’ schedule and would have them at 3-3. Home games against Georgia and South Carolina are likely losses. Games at Missouri and at Neyland Stadium against Auburn should be wins. So let’s assume it goes that way and the Vols are 5-5 with two weeks left.
Home against Vanderbilt and at Kentucky: That’s where you define your season.
A year ago, as the ill-fated Derek Dooley Era drew to a close, Vandy whipped Tennessee 41-18. The Commodores went to their second straight bowl game and the Vols finished with a losing record (5-7) for the third straight season.
Enter Butch Jones, the Great Orange Hope.
The Vols turned in losing records in two of Phil Fulmer’s last four seasons, you had the ripple-effect disaster that was Lane Kiffin – the damage extending far beyond one mediocre 7-6 season. Then UT lost 21 games in three years under Dooley.
So as this year’s team points toward that season-opening Aug. 31 game at Neyland against Austin Peay, there is much talk of restoring “Tennessee pride” and devotion to the “process” (thank you, Nick Saban).
At some level, it is all just so much coachspeak. But Jones has to start somewhere. He went 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati and 27-13 in three seasons at Central Michigan. He took his teams to bowl games five out of six years.
Impressive as far as it goes.
“Every day in the SEC is like fourth-and-one for the national championship,” Jones said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s practice, recruiting, game time … the competitive structure of this football conference, the difference between winning and losing is very slim.”
TENNESSEE THE LAST
2008: 5-7, 3-5 SEC, Fulmer
2009: 7-6, 4-4 SEC, Kiffin
2010: 6-7, 3-5 SEC, D Dooley
2011: 5-7, 1-7 SEC, D Dooley
2012: 5-7, 1-7 SEC, D Dooley
Totals: 28-34, 12-28 SEC
The biggest decision of camp is choosing a starting quarterback. Junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman are the frontrunners for the job with true freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson hoping to get an opportunity if Worley and Peterman disappoint.
“Sometimes you think you did better than you did and sometimes you think you did worse than you did,” Peterman explained after a recent scrimmage. “You don’t know until you watch the film.”
Even then, Jones perhaps will not have the clear answer he would like to have. But he knows this for sure: a stumble in a winnable game – say at Missouri, or home against Auburn – could render a winning season almost impossible.
“With the situation we’re in, winning would be the best thing ever,” said senior defensive end Jacques Smith, who fractured his right thumb and might miss the start of the season. “If we lost, it would be terrible. (So) there’s no choice; we’re going to win, and when we do, we’re going to be marked as the class that changes the Tennessee program.”
A few weeks ago at SEC Media Days, Jones noted that less than two months into taking over the program the football team had lost more than 260 pounds of fat and regained about 230 pounds of muscle. It was the first measurable sign of change and progress for this season; Jones’ highly touted recruiting class offers hope for 2014 and beyond.
“These players are hungry and they want to win,” Jones said.
Fans, however, are starving – eight straight losses to Florida and open discussion among others in the conference that the annual game vs. Alabama now amounts to a bye for the Crimson Tide.
“For us to make those rivalry games,” Jones said, “we have get back to being relevant and winning those football games.”
A 7-5 finish, a bowl trip, and a win over Vanderbilt still might leave UT this side of relevant. But it would make them something they haven’t been in a long time: