Tennessee lost to South Carolina Saturday. It was the Volunteers’ third-straight loss. It was inexcusable. Star running back Jalen Hurd is leaving the program. Rumors of players-only meetings are out there.
Things don’t look good for Butch Jones. But, he is not getting fired in 2016.
Doubting Jones’ coaching acumen is not unfounded. Clenching conservatism is an innate tendency, not something one overcomes. His teams play not to lose. He has a track record of bad, questionable decisions. Hiring his former boss Mike DeBord, out of football, to coordinate his offense has been a disaster, which was predictable.
Tennessee is 5-3. Without some extraordinary fortune, the Vols could be 3-5 or 2-6 this season and in Oregon/Notre Dame territory. The recent losing streak is not a shocking turn. It’s rational regression for a team that’s not very good. This may be the second-straight season the most talented team in the SEC East fails to win. But, this record needs context.
Tennessee’s injury crisis has been horrendous. Tennessee has had injuries to CB Cameron Sutton and LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, two potential early round draft picks. The Vols have had multiple offensive line starters go down. Alvin Kamara, Tennessee’s best offensive and special teams weapon, was out for the South Carolina game. Talent doesn’t help you injured on the bench.
Tennessee could still have its best regular season since 2007. The Vols have an upcoming three-game home stand of Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, and Missouri. They close the season on the road at Vanderbilt. Those are four games Tennessee should win.
A 9-3 finish would be a letdown, given preseason expectations. But, that would be Tennessee’s best regular season finish since 2007. Florida has tough games left. Tennessee has the tiebreaker, with the streak-ending win. The Vols still could win the SEC East.
Tennessee does not have a new athletic director yet. Dave Hart is leaving next summer. Tennessee has no one tabbed to replace him yet. That makes it hard to fire Jones. It would require strong leadership to push through a financial move that would cost tens of millions with uncertain returns. Dumping Jones alone would cost more than $10 million. Not having an AD also makes hiring someone else to replace him more difficult.
There isn’t an obvious alternative. LSU is in the market. Texas should be heading there as well. Tennessee can be a great job. Jones dispelled recruiting concerns. The right coach can compete for a national title there. But, it’s a notch below those two schools. The available coaching pool isn’t that deep. It’s not a given you end up with a coach who has a better track record than Jones.
Jones has not bottomed out, yet. Four winnable games could line up a solid finish to the regular season. Even if inclined, Tennessee is not well placed to make a decisive move. Jones will be on the hot seat next season, with a new boss coming in. But, barring a horrid Vols meltdown, that’s a discussion for 2017.
Butch may be an 8-9 win coach. But, it’s worth remembering it has taken a lot of building on his part to make that feel so disappointing.