By Alex Norman
It says something that the biggest game of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee was taking place 650 miles away between two teams that didn’t have “Vols” in their nicknames.
When Florida held on to beat LSU, Tennessee’s chances of winning the SEC East for the first time in 9 years were dashed.
A few hours later, when Butch Jones met the media following the Vols 63-37 win over Missouri, he had an interesting reaction when asked about the Florida win, which meant the Vols would not be heading to Atlanta.
“The only thing that matters is being 1-0 this week and controlling what we can control, and that’s winning the football game,” said Jones. “We never addressed it one single time, and I think when you look at it, our character was displayed once again with our players. But again, everything is about our team and working to be 1-0 and that’s all that matters.”
Wait. Wait, wait, wait…
Jones is saying that they never discussed winning the SEC’s Eastern Division once? That is either a big bunch of hooey, or it is as short sighted as humanly possible.
“You never heard me talk about it. Never heard the players talk about it. Our goal is to be 1-0 every week, and what happens, happens,” Jones added. “Again, I’m not going to sit in here and complain. We just won eight games, and that hasn’t been done here in a long time. We have an opportunity to win nine. Obviously we have strong expectations for this football program…”
Well, Tennessee did win eight regular season games last year, and won nine games overall, but who’s counting.
But this is where the Tennessee fans frustrations with Jones gains serious steam.
Jones has done a very good job building the program back up after the Lane Kiffin midnight run, and the three years of a de facto death penalty under Derek Dooley. Over the past 4 years, the Vols have posted a 29-20 record (press time prior to Vanderbilt game) with two bowl game victories.
The Vols snapped an 11 game losing streak to Florida, beat rival Georgia twice, brought in some solid recruiting classes and yes, Butch Jones has certainly made Tennessee relevant again.
But the sin of missing out on winning the SEC East, at a time when that division is as weak as it has been since the divisional play started in 1992, is glaring.
Actually, the Vols should have won the East the past two years. In 2015, Tennessee blew a double digit lead in the 4th quarter at Florida, including a 4th and 14 conversion that would have won the game. If the Vols closed things out, they would have won the division.
And this season, Tennessee somehow beat Florida and Georgia and still lost the East. The Vols overtime loss at Texas A&M and yes, even the 49-10 defeat to Alabama is acceptable. But coming off a bye week and then losing on the road to a mediocre South Carolina team is unacceptable.
That loss is what kept the Vols from Atlanta.
Now, this might help Tennessee in the long run. The Vols could end up in a great bowl game because they didn’t play for the SEC championship. Come on, you don’t actually think Tennessee was going to upset Alabama, do you? There’s a better chance of Donald Trump choosing Hillary Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to Portugal than the Vols winning a rematch.
Seeing the Vols get bludgeoned by the Tide won’t help recruiting, nor would it soothe the psyche of the Tennessee coaches and players.
But Jones’s denial that they even talk about getting to such a game rings hollow for a fan base that has been extremely supportive during some tough times. Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC since 1998, and that’s a significant drought for this program. Vols fans want to know that the coach their donations and ticket sales help give over $4 million a year wants that success as badly as they do.
Jones is a cliché machine, and eventually all the talk of “Team 120” and “individuals” and “magnitude” rings hollow. The petty fighting with the press does as well.
Tennessee could end up with 10 wins, and that would once again show improvement from year to year for this program under Butch Jones. That is the truth.
It’s also the truth that in 2016, the Vols did not live up to expectations.
Even if Jones won’t admit that there are bigger goals than going 1-0 every week.