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VOL. 131 | NO. 196 | Friday, September 30, 2016

Coach Cliché Strikes the Right Note for Tennessee

DAVID CLIMER Nashville Sports Correspondent

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Coach Cliché tells us it was just another game. Coach Cliché tells us the next game is always bigger than the last one. And, yes, Coach Cliché tells us you build things brick by brick.

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones helps direct the band following his team’s come-from-behind win against Florida. He hopes the celebration continues this week when the Vols play at Georgia.

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)

You know what? He’s right.

One month into the college football season, Coach Cliché – aka Butch Jones – is sticking to his script. Why not? It’s worked so far.

Jones might not be a colorful quote machine for the media, but his by-the-numbers, brick-by-brick approach is turning Tennessee football into anything but a cliché. The Vols’ 38-28 exorcism of the Florida demon is the latest example of a program on the rise. And there appears to be more where that came from.

Don’t expect Jones to change his message. He has long since turned the page on the Florida game, setting his laser focus on Georgia and expecting his players to do the same.

It’s for the best. With such modest success for UT football over the last eight seasons, the last thing the Vols or their coach need is to dwell on the streak-breaking victory over the Gators and ignore the challenge that lies ahead.

Make no mistake: the challenge is very real. Georgia might be coming off an embarrassing 45-14 boat-racing at Ole Miss, but the Dawgs are on far safer footing between the hedges this weekend. Meanwhile, UT is just getting started on a stretch of games that will define its season.

The Vols are just one-quarter of the way through a four-game SEC gauntlet. Georgia is next, followed by UT’s first-ever trip to Texas A&M and then a home game against Alabama. Yes, the hits keep right on coming.

You don’t normally encounter this kind of schedule. For example, the 1998 national championship UT team faced only four ranked opponents in the entire regular season. Beyond that, there’s usually a non-conference patsy or an open date to break up things.

But Jones got a dose of this during his first season at UT. His 2013 Vols went through a five-game SEC stretch where all their opponents were ranked No. 11 or higher – Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn. UT took Georgia to overtime before losing, and the Vols upset South Carolina but then lost the next three by a combined 95 points.

Clearly, the 2013 Vols weren’t prepared for that kind of turn in the schedule. In retrospect, Jones deserves more credit than he has received for winning five games with that roster against that schedule. Remember, he had back-to-back trips to Oregon and Florida in September that year.

Forty-six months after his arrival in Knoxville, we are seeing the fruits of Jones’ reclamation project. Granted, the Vols were fortunate to get through their first three games of this season undefeated. They could have lost the opener to Appalachian State. They trailed Virginia Tech 14-0 in the Battle at Bristol before making corrections.

They kept dropping the ball against Ohio University but managed to fall on it every time to escape.

Then came the Florida game. UT trailed 21-0 early and 21-3 at the half, looking outclassed and outcoached. But Jones, speaking to the nation via a sideline interview with CBS, reminded everybody that it takes two halves to make a whole.

The most impressive thing Jones did was convince his players to stay the course after they were booed off the field at the end of the first half by many fans at Neyland Stadium. It helped that the players didn’t have access to Twitter or Internet message boards during halftime.

The Vol Nation was unhappy, with the social media posts to prove it.

Never mind that UT was minus three of its very best defensive players – cornerback Cam Sutton and linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. Or that the offensive line was being dominated by Florida’s defensive front. Or that Josh Dobbs looked more like an aerospace engineering geek than an SEC quarterback.

Something clicked for the Vols in the second half. Thanks to his strategic and attitude adjustments, Jones answered those nagging questions about his in-game coaching performance.

You know what happened.

On Florida’s first five possessions of the second half, UT did not allow a first down, with Todd Kelly Jr.’s interception ending one series. Meanwhile, the Vols offense took flight. With far better pass protection, Dobbs got the ball to his playmakers while also taking matters into his own hands on a five-yard touchdown run.

As momentum turned, the Vols didn’t back off. Yes, they started running the clock on offense and there was one series where the UT defense seemed to go into prevent mode. For the most part, though, the Vols remained the aggressor.

In the past, I’ve been critical of Jones’ handling of fourth-quarter leads – and rightfully so. The 2015 Vols should have beaten Oklahoma and Florida but couldn’t close the deal, in part because of some too-cautious coaching by Jones and his staff.

This Florida game is an indication Jones is growing into this job. Granted, he won 50 games in a combined six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but that was Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

While his recruiting has never been questioned, there were times when it was fair to wonder if he was in over his head in the SEC shark tank when it came to matching wits with opposing coaches.

A year ago in Gainesville, and for one-half of last week’s game, Jim McElwain looked like he had Jones’ number. Then over the course of 30 minutes of impressive football, Jones changed the perception. In the end, it was McElwain who appeared frustrated and confused while Jones and his staff made all the right moves.

Of course, there are many twists and turns on the road to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Since head-to-head results are the first divisional tiebreaker, UT’s win over Florida is a major advantage, assuming this will come down to a two-team race in the SEC East.

But Georgia could have something to say about that. For the Dawgs, this is a must-win game if they’re going to challenge in the division.

Coach Cliché has his work cut out for him.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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