May 21, 2024

All is not lost in Knoxville… Yet

When Tennessee and Georgia face off on Saturday, Butch Jones and his staff could be looking at a sink or swim situation. Vol fans are getting tired of empty promises.

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When Tennessee and Georgia face off on Saturday, Butch Jones and his staff could be looking at a sink or swim situation.

After going up 14-0 over Arkansas with 8:06 to go in the first quarter, Tennessee looked like they had a handle on things.

Then, an all-too-familiar fear became a dreadful reality when the Volunteers scored six points in the final 53:06 of Saturday’s game and blew their third 13-point lead in four games. Arkansas came back to win, 24-20, giving head coach Bret Bielema his first SEC road win as coach of the Razorbacks.

Tennessee fans, dubbed “Vol Nation,” had a meltdown. There were boos echoing throughout Neyland Stadium, fans on social media calling for Jones’ head and even some comparisons to a coach that Athlon Sports once declared the worst coaching hire ever at a big program.

Vol fans have a right to be upset, though. After Phillip Fulmer was pushed out of Tennessee’s coaching job, the one-hit-wonder Lane Kiffin fiasco and the disastrous hiring of Derek Dooley left a program that has never suffered an eight-loss season wondering if it could ever return to national prominence.

From Fulmer’s last season in 2008 to Dooley’s last season in 2012, Tennessee lost 34 games in five years.

Tennessee, which has had a coach-led football program since 1899, had never lost 34 games in five years before that stretch.

This stretch has made fans understandably impatient. Jones knew what he signed up for when he agreed to be Tennessee’s next coach. Tennessee’s fans literally sat through the worst losing stretch in the program’s history.

But Jones, bricks and clichés in hand, lit a fire in Vol Nation.

He had all the right sayings, all the right recruits and all the right motivational gags.  In his first season, it all came to a peak.

All of it came together against then-No. 6 Georgia.

The Vols wore Smokey Grey uniforms. Fans packed Neyland. The stadium was so loud that Tennessee occasionally had some miscommunication because of the noise. The fans, coaches and team were fired up. Tennessee took a 31-24 lead with just under two minutes left.

Then, it all fell apart.

Photo by Parker Anderson, courtesy of creativecommons.org. No changes made.
Photo by Parker Anderson, courtesy of creativecommons.org. No changes made.

Aaron Murray led injury-ridden Georgia to a game-tying touchdown with five seconds left. Then, in overtime, Alton “Pig” Howard lost a fumble out of the endzone while trying to extend the ball to the pylon for a touchdown. Georgia went on to kick the game-winning field goal on their overtime possession and won 34-31.

In a way, it set the tone for the rest of Tennessee’s season. The Vols looked like they could compete with just about anybody, even if it was all from pure grit. Jones’ fourth down play calls earned him the nickname “Butch Stones,” and the sudden burst of confidence led Tennessee to upset a top-10 South Carolina team the following week.

The Vols were undermanned for most of the games to finish out the season. They lost their quarterback, lost to in-state rival Vanderbilt, then missed out on a bowl game. But fans were quick to point back to the Georgia game as an upset that could have been, and a spark for the following week upset over the Gamecocks.

Move forward to 2014. Tennessee opened with a statement win over Chuckie Keeton and Utah State, who some picked to upset the Vols. UT followed with a less-than-impressive win over Arkansas State and then did not have enough in the tank to compete with Oklahoma. Quarterback Justin Worley looked competent enough, but a daunting SEC schedule followed.

Then, it seemed to magically come together at Georgia.

Worley and Jalen Hurd put in incredible individual efforts, and the Vols were an endzone fumble or a fourth down stop away from possibly changing the outcome of the game. The game gave Vol fans a sense of competitive edge. Tennessee was competing with the class of the SEC East.

The following week, the Vols blew a nine-point fourth quarter lead to Florida and lost their tenth straight in the series.

Tennessee was blown out at Ole Miss, losing Worley for the year, and Nathan Peterman was a nightmare on the football field. Joshua Dobbs single-handedly saved Tennessee from missing a bowl game with a superhuman effort against South Carolina and then led Tennessee to bowl eligibility with wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Why did Georgia matter in 2013?

The Vols were inches away from Butch Jones’ first signature win, the Vols’ first win over Georgia since 2009 and bowl eligibility in Jones’ first year. Tennessee fans took away the competitiveness and coaching ability from that game.

Why did Georgia matter in 2014?

Tennessee’s offensive line was horrible in 2014. The Vols had one convincing win, and it came against a Mountain West Conference team. Then, undermanned, without anything resembling an SEC offensive line, Tennessee went into Athens and nearly knocked off the Bulldogs. Again. The fans saw that Tennessee could compete against the class of the SEC East. But all that was for naught when Tennessee struggled against other elite opponents and rode the coattails of Dobbs to bowl eligibility.

Why does Georgia matter in 2015?

As far as some Vol fans are concerned, Butch Jones is already walking the plank. After blowing leads in the only games that have mattered so far this season, Tennessee is 0-2 in SEC play and is staring an 0-4 SEC start in the face. Jones and his staff have a chance to turn it all around on Saturday. Many of the in-game issues Jones has faced the season — second-half adjustments, game mismanagement, conservative play calling — could simply be fixed by doing the opposite. It seems simple to make counter-adjustments to an opponents’ halftime changes, but Tennessee has done little, if any, of that this season. All it takes is one game to fix bad habits. As Vol Nation reaches its boiling point, Jones has a chance to come out and prove to his fan base why he deserves to coach at one of the most successful programs in the history of college football.

If not, he may be pushed to the end of the plank by an angry group of orange and white pirates, desperate for a captain that is worth his weight in gold.

Featured image by Tennessee Journalist

Edited by Cody McClure

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Nathan is a junior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He spends most of his free time eating meaningless foods and watching sports. If you wish to contact Nathan, you can email him at wodom3@vols.utk.edu or find him on Twitter, @NathanOdom11.