KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones can recruit. Butch Jones can unite. Butch Jones can excite.
Can Butch Jones win?
That is the question that remains as the University of Tennessee prepares for the 2014 football opener when Utah State visits Neyland Stadium on Aug. 31.
After landing a consensus Top 5 recruiting class to start off 2014, Jones and his staff are assembling what appears to be at least a Top 10 class for 2015. Jones has united and excited the fan base, as evidenced by the more than 40,000 fans who turned out for an open practice at Neyland Stadium Saturday evening.
But can Butch win?
After languishing in the wilderness of the Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley debacles, the Tennessee faithful are looking to Jones as the children of Israel must have looked to Moses. “Butch gets it” is a phrase that has been repeated so often that it has become a cliche mocked by internet memes.
Butch does get it. Saturday’s open practice — like the open practice prior to the 2013 season opener — had a gameday feel. Fans tailgated and played cornhole along Cumberland Avenue; the Pride of the Southland Band was on-hand to blast countless renditions of Rocky Top. Jones challenged Peyton Manning to an ice water challenge to the roar of approval from fans inside the stadium. Yes, Butch gets it.
But can Butch win?
It only took Jones a half-season to get a “signature win” at Tennessee; his Vols used a last-second field goal from Michael Palardy to beat No. 11 South Carolina in 2013.
But then Tennessee turned around and lost to hated Vanderbilt. Inside Neyland Stadium. In a game that cost the Vols’ a chance at a bowl game.
Can Butch win?
That’s a question that can’t be fully answered in 2014. Not unless, of course, Butch does win. If the Vols win seven or — dare we think it? — eight games this season, Butch may very well send Bill Haslam notice that he’s looking to move into the governor’s mansion.
But if the Vols do what just about everyone expects them to do — that is, win only five or six games — the Tennessee fan base will have to be patient for at least one more year.
It is the 2015 season that Tennessee fans should have circled on their calendars. That’s when the Vols should be primed to begin making noise in the SEC once more, if Jones and his staff are up to snuff as coaches in the nation’s most powerful football conference. In the meantime, the Big Orange faithful are simply going to have to have patience. A 6-6 or even a 5-7 season are not necessarily indicators that Butch can’t win . . . not in this league; not with this schedule.
Tennessee’s schedule includes a trip to Norman to face powerful Oklahoma, in addition to the always-tough slate of SEC foes.
Renowned prognosticator Phil Steele calls it the second-toughest schedule in all of college football. And it’s easy to see why. On this schedule, even the cupcakes are tough. Utah State and Arkansas State could very easily walk into Neyland Stadium and stun the Vols with an upset win. The only guaranteed win on this schedule? Little sister Chattanooga. Jones and his Vols will have to fight tooth-and-claw for the rest of them.
If you assume Oklahoma, Alabama and Ole Miss are losses — and that’s probably a fairly safe assumption going into the season — the Vols will have three guaranteed losses. If you assume that games at Georgia and South Carolina will probably also be losses, that number jumps to five and there is suddenly no room for error if Tennessee has hopes of a bowl bid.
On the other hand, if you assume that Arkansas State, Chattanooga, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are wins — and that is not an assumption that many fans would be willing to put money on — things begin to even themselves out. That leaves Utah State, Florida and Missouri, with Tennessee needing two out of the three for bowl eligibility.
And that’s why a visit from Florida in early October and the visit from Utah State in a little over a week are the most important games of 2014 for Butch Jones and his squad.
Florida is a team the Vols should probably lose to but could beat. Win that one and you truly unite the fan base, you give recruits something to hang their hats on, and you set the stage for big things to come in future seasons. Bowl eligibility wouldn’t be guaranteed, but it would become a safe bet. Florida is down, by Florida standards, and Will Muschamp — the guy most UT fans wanted instead of Jones — is squarely on the hot seat, but a win over the Gators could well serve as the catalyst for a return to the Tennessee football glory days.
Utah State, on the other hand, is a team the Vols should probably beat but could lose to. Lose that one and you give the doubters in the fan base plenty of fuel, you give opposing coaches plenty of fuel for their negative recruiting battles, and you risk throwing the entire season into turmoil before it even gets started. Bowl eligibility will become almost an impossibility.
It isn’t fair to call Utah State a “must-win” game for Butch Jones. But for a second-year coach in the first game of his second season, it’s probably as close as you get to a “must-win” game.
So are Jones and his staff up to the challenge? Is senior Justin Worley due a breakout season? Can he get the ball close enough to the Vols’ heralded receiving corps — in terms of raw talent, maybe the best receivers in the SEC this season — to make a difference? Can the Vols effectively rebuild their entire offensive and defensive lines? Can linebacker Curt Maggit stay healthy? Can the Vols find a capable replacement for Mike Palardy? Can the numerous true freshmen who will be called upon to contribute in 2014 grow up in a hurry?
When you pause to consider just how many uncertainties face this Tennessee team, it’s easier to comprehend just why bowl eligibility is going to be a stretch for the Vols in 2014. You don’t have to look at UT very long — on the field in pads or on paper — to see that this squad is slowly but surely starting to resemble a football team again. But winning SEC football teams — like Rome — aren’t built in a day. “Brick by brick” looked awfully good in the advertising campaign featuring State Farm last fall. But many a brickmason can tell you just how painfully slow the process of bricklaying can be.
Can Butch Jones win? Maybe the better question is, Can Tennessee fans be patient? Nick Saban probably couldn’t finish above .500 in SEC play with this Tennessee team. If UT fans remember that, and excuse one more season of lumps and bruises, Butch Jones just might prove that he can win . . . but don’t expect it to happen this year.