For Tennessee — and more specifically for head Butch Jones — it has to be better. It should be better. It had better be better.
The No. 9-ranked Volunteers hung on to beat Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, scoring 17 consecutive points after a 13-3 halftime deficit. Impressive to blank the Mountaineers after going down double digits, but even the comeback fell short of the point spread. Vols entered the game as a three-touchdown favorite.
A win is a win is a win — even one with the help of a missed PAT and would-be,game-winning field goal of 42 yards going wide right — but if Tennessee has hopes of finally being “back,” it can’t let an undersized OL whip its vaunted DL. It can’t get pushed around by a small DL. Both happened often.
Against App St.
Every SEC team with a competent D-line has to be salivating.
What’s Florida’s D Line gonna do to 55 😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/FaSVtLhHU0
— Ty (@tiepod) September 2, 2016
Jones has done a lot of talking. He sells the Vols with every breath, and that’s helped him bring in top-level talent. Yet when you watch senior QB Joshua Dobbs continue to make the same mistakes year after year after year, you have to wonder if Jones needs to spend more time coaching, not marketing. When you watch an offensive line continue to struggle, you begin to buy into the caricature of Jones: Lousy coach, great recruiter.
Jones is the Josh Pastner of college football.
Entering this season, Tennessee had legitimate hopes of contending for the SEC title, but the Tennessee team that played App St won’t win more than eight games.
And if Tennessee doesn’t win more than eight games this year, with the SEC East being possibly the worst it’s been in years, when will Jones get Tennessee on top?
The good news is Tennessee can take a page from previous teams that faltered early. Stanford lost to Northwestern a year ago, fell out and was dead to rights… until it went to the Rose Bowl. Georgia started 0-2 in 2011 before winning 10 in a row and claiming the SEC East. And while it might have felt like a loss, Tennessee didn’t even lose Thursday — it just should have.
There’s still plenty of time to turn the opening malaise into something promising.
This wasn’t the start Tennessee hoped for, thought. It wasn’t the start many people assumed (myself included).* But it can be of good use. The Vols can now fully understand what it means to have a bulls-eye on their backs.
If Tennessee wants to be the top dog in the SEC East and go toe-to-toe with the West winner in Atlanta, it has to wake up soon. Justin Fuente’s new-look Virginia Tech awaits in Bristol next week, and the Vols’ albatross, the Florida Gators, await in just three weeks.
Jones needs to use this close call and accept that anything but the Vols’ best isn’t good enough with Tennessee wearing a target Jones’ rhetoric invited. Being the clear favorite in the SEC East doesn’t make Tennessee an Alabama-like juggernaut. Perhaps the Vols read too many of their own press clippings.
But if Jones wants to keep his job in Knoxville, he’s going to have to show his team has improved. If the beginning of the fourth year is any indication, he shouldn’t feel comfortable just yet.
*Editor’s note: The CFB Huddle Six-Pack had the Vols winning by 25 and scoring 42 points.