The 2017 season marks a dubious milestone for Tennessee Vols football, one Butch Jones can’t afford to celebrate: It’s been 10 years since the program last won the SEC East.
Butch Jones has been at the helm for half of the Aluminum Anniversary, and Year Five took the wrong first step toward ending the drought with a 26-20 loss to SEC East counterpart Florida.
Now, a mid-September defeat hardly precludes Tennessee from playing in Atlanta come December. After all, Tennessee beat Florida last September — a victory that snapped a different, equally frustrating streak for Vols fans — but the Gators still won the division.
It’s not easy so much losing the SEC opener in and of itself that has to feel so gutting for Tennessee faithful; road games against ranked opponents in the self-proclaimed best conference are meant to be challenging.
After beating Florida for the first time since 2004 last season, however, Saturday has the appearance of a regression. So does the way in which Tennessee lost.
When Butch Jones was hired before the 2013 season, he inherited a mess. Derek Dooley oversaw the first back-to-back losing campaigns since the forward pass was authorized, after he’d taken over the abbreviated and scandal-laden tenure of Lane Kiffin.
Add the disastrous final season Hall of Famer Phil Fulmer endured one year after Tennessee won its final SEC East title, and the situation into which Butch Jones arrived was anything but favorable. That’s some necessary context for any hot-seat talk pertaining to Jones, whose teams finished 9-4 each of the previous two seasons.
But of equal contextual weight is that Tennessee failed to win an SEC East that, in 2015 and 2016, was a dumpster fire. Florida has not returned to the lofty heights at which it resided under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, but Jim McElwain’s capitalized on the overall weakness of the division at a time when the program isn’t up to historic standards.
With a loss to the Gators Saturday, Tennessee muddied outlook for winning the East in yet another year that division appears suspect. Meanwhile, the manner in which the Vols lost might be the most damning context when evaluating where Butch Jones currently stands.
Tennessee ascended to No. 9 in the polls midway through the 2016 season, the peak of the Butch Jones era to date. The Vols got there on a series of remarkable comebacks and jaw-dropping finishes, rallying to beat Appalachian State in overtime; roaring back from a sluggish start to snap the losing streak to Florida; and out-buzzer-beater’ing Georgia.
Saturday’s loss felt like karma calling in its chips, if you’re the type who believes in cosmic forces.
Rocky Flop pic.twitter.com/nm3cctii65
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) September 16, 2017
If you’re the type who believes in making your own luck, well, Jones and offensive coordinator Larry Scott certainly tempted fate in the red zone. With an opportunity for the Vols to take their first lead, and running back John Kelly ripping off more than seven yards per carry on the day, Kelly — already as close to single-handedly responsible for UT’s shouldn’t-have-happened win over Georgia Tech — didn’t get a carry.
No one did. Three pass attempts led to three points. Karma saw that play-calling and intervened on Florida’s final play.
Tennessee is back to where it started in Butch Jones’ first season. Following the dismal 2012 campaign, the Vols’ 2013 showed loads of promise when Tennessee went to the wire in a number of close losses. The Vols had a tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but such is the identity of a program under a first-year head coach building toward success.
In Year Five, it’s much tougher to excuse.