When college football pundits and spectators look back at when the Tennessee Vols reemerged as players on the national scene under head coach Butch Jones, Oct. 12, 2013 seems an obvious date.
On that day in Neyland Stadium, Michael Palardy was lined up for a field-goal attempt from just about the distance of an extra point. Piece of cake, right?
Maybe. But you’d have to excuse any Tennessee Vols fans who were bracing for the worst. Once a power both in the SEC and on the nationally, Tennessee was gaining a track record for heartbreaking disappointment.
Just one week prior, the Vols had rival and sixth-ranked Georgia all but beat before Aaron Murray’s overtime-forcing touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds remaining. Pig Howard’s end-zone fumble to open the extra frame all but sealed the Vols’ 19th consecutive loss to a ranked opponent.
The end of that dubious streak rested on Palardy’s foot and his extra-point length field goal. As his kick sailed through the uprights, it’s a wonder the collective exhale of 100,000-plus orange-clad fans, players and coaches didn’t generate gale force winds through the stadium.
Oct. 12, 2013. Tennessee scored its first win over a ranked opponent in 20 tries. Talented wide receiver Marquez North made the play that may both helped set up Palardy’s attempt, and could be the foundation of an unforgettable career. Vols fans had reason to no longer anticipate the worst.
Indeed, Oct. 12, 2013 was a “great day to be a Vol,” the line with which Butch Jones opened his postgame press conference.
There haven’t been many opportunities to say that recently, what with Tennessee finishing below .500 every season but one from 2008 through 2012, predating Jones’ arrival from Cincinnati. The sole winning campaign may even have been worse than any of the losing years, given the acrimonious split former head coach Lane Kiffin had with the program.
And, despite the South Carolina victory, the streak extended to four straight losing seasons in Jones’ 2013 debut. Snapping that streak of losing records and postseasons without a bowl bid might be a lot more difficult than a 19-yard field goal attempt.
The Vols open with Utah State, a hard-nosed defensive team that took Auburn to the brink in 2011, captained by exciting dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Tennessee must also travel to consensus preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma.
And that’s before diving into the treacherous SEC waters, where the Vols face permanent crossover rival Alabama and travel to The Grove to meet upstart Ole Miss out of the West. The Rebels are a year ahead of the Vols in their own rebuilding project.
But if Tennessee again falls short of making a bowl game, don’t expect malaise to still linger over the program. The Vols are clearly trending upward under Jones–though getting increasingly impatient fans at any program is difficult. It can be especially challenging at a former national powerhouse with a passionate fan base that longs for past glory.
“Within the program, the focus has been on portraying realistic expectations for this season,” said Reed Carringer of Rocky Top Insider. “Jones has tried to temper expectations during his various media appearances. He’s done so by mentioning that they’re the only program in the nation without a returning starter on the line of scrimmage and that nearly 50 percent of their roster hasn’t played in a collegiate game.
“Many know that 6-6 should be a considered a success this year,” he adds. With the difficult schedule and inexperience up and down the roster, simply making it to a bowl game for the first time since 2010 is a major milestone.
There seems to patience at Tennessee not necessarily exhibited at other programs that play at the level the Vols once did. Perhaps it’s due to the sheer depth of Tennessee’s particular valley in the last half-decade. Phil Fulmer’s otherwise successful tenure ended disastrously, Kiffin left after one scandal-plagued season, too late for Tennessee brass to mount a proper coaching search. The short turnaround time left the program with Derek Dooley, who proved ill-suited to the job.
Carringer cited “Dooley’s laziness on the recruiting trail” as one contributing factor to the program’s struggles. There was also “the attrition that comes with having four different coaches in a span of four years.”
Jones may be winning over Tennessee Vols fans because he’s not Kiffin; he’s vested in the program’s long-term stability. He’s also not Dooley, as Carringer noted.
Moreover, Jones is producing tangible results that suggest the rebuild will have Tennessee on solid ground for years to come.
“There’s simply no question Tennessee’s talent level is on the rise, and fans are rallying around that,” Carringer said.
Jones’ hire was something of a gamble for athletic director Dave Hart. Though he’d been successful at Central Michigan and Cincinnati previously, both times Jones inherited programs Brian Kelly had left in great shape.
The Tennessee Vols were most certainly not in great shape upon Jones’ arrival. A rebuild is always more difficult than a renovation, as the former requires laying a new foundation.
CFBHuddle.com contributor Ryan Wooden wrote an outstanding examination of Jones’ recruiting efforts a year ago, before he’d yet to coach a game at Tennessee. The unifying theme recruits told Wooden was that they believed in the coach’s “brick-by-brick” philosophy, a concept of building a program meant for long-term success from the ground-up.
When hitting the recruiting trail a year ago, Jones didn’t yet have the tangible evidence of the program’s turnaround gained in October’s defeat of South Carolina. Jones had to sell a conecpt–and, as Carringer notes, playing time.
The recruiting pitch is obviously working. Jones signed the nation’s No. 7-ranked class in 2014 after landing the No. 26-ranked class in 2013. His best work is yet to come, evident in the busy offseason he and his Tennessee Vols have had thus far.
247Sports ranks Jones’ 2015 class No. 5 nationally as of July 20. Tennessee scored on commitments from 5-star prospects Kahlil McKenzie and Preston Williams, and have another composite 4-star pledges as well.
In much the same way Oct. 12, 2013 is a milestone date in the reconstruction of Tennessee Vols football, so too is June 21, 2014. Jones gained four verbal commitments that weekend, including former Alabama running back prospect Alvin Kamara.
It stands to reason Jones has been able to land talent looking to prove their championship credentials rather than inherit them, because that’s what Jones himself is striving for at Tennessee.
With each milestone the Vols and Jones meet together, the Oct. 12, 2013s still to come won’t be dates to remember. They’ll be part of the routine.