July 14, 2024

Fourth down and goals — the turning point of the Butch Jones era

Tennessee’s win over Florida is a program-changing win, but it did not start the Vols’ rise to national prominence. That began last year against Georgia on an improbable fourth-down conversion.

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 10, 2015 - Wide receiver Josh Smith #25 of the Tennessee Volunteers scores off a pass during the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Matthew S. DeMaria / Tennessee Athletics

Butch Jones appeared dejected. His tone somber as he answered questions he probably didn’t want to answer.

There were questions on how his team could lose to an Arkansas squad fresh off a three-game losing streak that included a loss to Toledo. Questions asking how his team could drop a game at Neyland Stadium after grabbing an early 14-0 lead and and only mustering four possessions and four rushing yards in the second half.

Fans questioned how his team could be 2-3.

It wasn’t a fourth-quarter collapse akin to previous matches against Oklahoma and Florida. Those losses still sting the Tennessee Volunteer fan base to this day. However, Tennessee football hit rock bottom in 2015 after losing to Arkansas, 24-20, in front of a stunned Neyland crowd.

Losing to the Sooners (after leading 17-3 entering the fourth quarter) and Gators (after leading 27-14 with just over five minutes left in the game) was heartbreaking, but not surprising considering the stature of both programs. But, dropping a game at home against a struggling opponent drove the final nail in Jones’ coffin for numerous fans on Rocky Top.

To make matters worse, the Vols’ next opponent — the Georgia Bulldogs — marched into Neyland the following weekend and stormed to a 24-3 lead. At that point, with the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide awaiting the following weekend, a 2-5 start was penciled in. Even if the Vols won out after that point, Jones’ job was anything but secure.

Then, Team 119 reversed their fortunes.

Facing a fourth-and-nine from the Georgia 39-yard line during the dwindling seconds of the first half, quarterback Joshua Dobbs delivered a pass downfield to Josh Smith. In typical Dobbs fashion, the throw was inaccurate, but Smith somehow managed to reach behind and make a play on the ball, pirouetting in the air like Mikhail Baryshnikov, landing on his feet and darting into the end zone.

Sony Michele’s fumble on the ensuing kickoff sent Neyland into Hysteria. The Bulldogs’ three-touchdown lead evaporated into a one-score lead after Dobbs connected with Alvin Kamara on a two-yard score before the half.

Tennessee eventually took a 31-24 lead into the fourth quarter after another Dobbs touchdown pass to Kamara. Given the team’s turbulent past in the final frame of games, fans were hesitant and fearful of another collapse.

Their fears were confirmed after Greyson Lambert connected on a 48-yard touchdown to Reggie Davis on the first play of the fourth quarter. Through the wall of sighs and hands placed on heads as jaws plummeted to the floor was the collective feeling of “here we go again.”

But the Vols’ defense held tight for the remainder of the quarter. After a Dobbs touchdown run put Tennessee up 38-31, the Bulldogs’ two scoring opportunities proved futile against a high-flying Orange and White defense.

Whether momentum in sports exists or not is up for debate, but after completing an improbable comeback against an arch rival, Tennessee went 6-1 over the next seven games, including a six-game winning streak to close the season after a 19-14 loss to Alabama. The Vols finished the season 9-4, continuing Jones’ trend of increasing the program’s win total by two games each season.

Prior to Jones’ arrival in 2013, Tennessee’s once-proud football program became the epitome of mediocrity. The final years of Phillip Fulmer’s reign were inconsistent. Lane Kiffin became the most hated man in Knoxville after jumping ship for USC after only one season as Tennessee’s head coach. Derek Dooley’s ineptitude made him a popular punchline.

Jones laid out his “brick-by-brick” policy despite dealing with one of the nation’s hungriest fan bases. It required patience in a social media era where patience is a lost art. After a blitzkrieg on the recruiting trail resulted in consecutive top-tier recruiting classes, optimism surrounding Jones and the program skyrocketed. But, so did the expectations.

The steady progress over the first two seasons was embraced by the fans, but entering his third season, blowing three double-digit leads was inexcusable. When Georgia built a three-touchdown lead without its best player in front of a boiling sea of orange and white, the Butch Jones era in Knoxville appeared kaput.

Fast forward almost a year. Tennessee is ranked No. 11 in the AP Poll. The Vols are fresh off a 38-28 win over the Florida Gators, ending an 11-year losing streak. Now, they face a Georgia team under a new regime, a team that struggled against Nicholls State, depended on a freshman quarterback to convert on miracle throws against Missouri and suffered a 45-14 beatdown at the hands of Ole Miss.

For years, the Bulldogs have been the bridesmaids of not just the entire conference, but their own division. Instead of competing for National Championships, Georgia struggled to consistently overtake Florida and Missouri despite fielding stronger rosters. Now, Kirby Smart plays the waiting game, similar to Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. Although he is now the head man in charge, his recruits haven’t worked their way up the ranks.

In the meantime, Tennessee appears to be the next dominant SEC East program. Jones’ game-by-game philosophy is working. Jones’ belief in trusting the process is working. Jones’ ability to convince his players to never quit in a game or on a season is working. Jones’ plans have always been working, even if it hasn’t always resulted in wins.

The win over the Gators reopened Jones’ once tightly concealed coffin. Fans are convinced that he is the right man to recreate the glory days of the 1990s, and perhaps surpass them.

But that reality didn’t reveal itself last weekend. It all began on a fourth-and-nine last October.

Edited by Adam Milliken

Featured image by Matthew S. DeMaria, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics