By Alex Norman

Well, we are smack dab in the dog days of summer.  The Vols first football game is still more than 7 weeks away.  It’s brutal.  We are all stuck watching tennis or golf.  There is some soccer, but it isn’t the really good soccer.

We have to do something to fill the time…

So why not speculate on the future of Butch Jones at Tennessee!

Jones is entering his fifth season as the Vols head coach.  The program is certainly in better shape today than when Jones arrived in Knoxville in late 2012, but Tennessee has yet to win the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference.  Overall it has been 10 years since UT won the East and 19 years since they won the SEC.

The patience of many Vols fans is running thin.

At some point you do wonder if this is as far as Jones can get the program.  He is certainly a good recruiter, an eager promoter… but limitations in terms of game management that have cost the Vols dearly in some key games… including the Florida and Oklahoma contests in 2015.

At this stage can Jones learn to make the decisions that equal program changing wins?

2017 brings with it some interesting challenges for Jones and this coaching staff.

The Vols open the season at Atlanta against Georgia Tech.

This game has trap written all over it.

Remember in 2008 when the Vols moved their schedule around to accommodate ESPN and opened the season on Labor Day evening at UCLA?  That was supposed to be their second game of the season.  Instead, they started with a tricky opponent 2500 miles from home.  The Vols lost that game in overtime and it started them on the road to a 5-6 campaign that cost Phillip Fulmer his job.

Fast forward 9 years and the Vols open against another tricky opponent.  That Flexbone Triple Option offensive system is one that Tennessee never sees.  Yes, they get a lot of time to prepare, but still, not ideal for a defense that struggled to stop the run last season.

The game will also be played on Labor Day evening, and instead of the Rose Bowl, it’ll be one of the first games played at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

It isn’t a conference game, but it could be a harbinger of things to come in 2017. Otherwise the out of conference schedule is fairly soft, with Indiana State, UMass and Southern Miss coming to Neyland Stadium.

The good news for Tennessee is that the 2017 schedule doesn’t have any stretch like the four straight weeks in 2016 when the Vols played Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama.  That was a brutal stretch that took a lot out of the roster, emotionally and physically.

There aren’t even any back to back “tough” games.  Maybe the most difficult twosome being contests at Alabama and at Kentucky in consecutive mid-October weeks.

The Wildcats are a hip choice to move up in the SEC East this season, but Tennessee has only lost once to Kentucky since 1984.  Still, a loss in Lexington would bring back memories of that 2011 defeat which was the beginning of the end of the Derek Dooley era.

The Vols lost a lot of talent to the NFL, plus guys like Jalen Hurd and Preston Williams decided to transfer.

Getting back to 9 wins will not be an easy task, especially breaking in a couple of new quarterbacks.

Butch Jones has taken a step back it seems and is delegating more.  He shook up his coaching staff considerably… a sign that he knew the guys in place weren’t getting the program to the next level.  His moves have paid off in recruiting thus far, with Tennessee currently holding the top Class of 2018 in the SEC.

If the Vols go 8-4, Butch Jones will return in 2018…

If they go 7-5?  He’s probably safe as well, barring a 2011 Kentucky type loss…

If they go 6-6, Butch Jones will likely not return in 2018…

The games can’t get here fast enough… talking about football isn’t nearly as fun as watching football.