For Vol fans, this one’s gonna sting for a while. Nevermind that Oklahoma’s program is ahead of Tennessee’s program. Or that OU came into the game ranked higher than UT. Or that the Vols put up a better fight versus the Sooners this year than they did last year.
When you lead 17-0 and folks have convinced themselves that they have more talent than their opponent… a loss is unacceptable. It’s what I call “anticipointment.” Someone anticipates something good happening, only to be disappointed when said good something doesn’t happen.
In this case, many Vol fans were left “anticipissed,” rather than anticipointed.
Below I’ll touch on a few thought bubbles that have been bouncing around my oversized head these last couple of days. Just a general clearing of the air.
A Field Goal on 4th and Inches?
Should Butch Jones have gone for the touchdown after his team picked off a pass and then marched 50 yards on 11 plays to the Oklahoma goal line? Probably.
Would I have gone for it? Probably.
Was Jones’ decision not to do so a surprise? Not really.
As we discussed on Sunday’s show and on previous shows going all the way back to the Vols’ upset of #10 South Carolina in 2013, Jones more often than not takes a conservative approach. There’s some logic behind putting points on the board in that situation. And if you’re the home team hunkered down for a tight slug-it-out, putting those points — any points — in your ledger makes some sense.
My guess is that if the exact same scenario had played out a year ago in Norman, Jones would have gone for the touchdown. Big underdog, on the road… what’s to lose? But not on even footing. Not at home. It’s the same reason home teams play for overtime (as Tennessee did with its fourth quarter kneel-down) and road teams go for the win (as Air Force attempted do in a 2006 loss in Knoxville).
Writer Bill Connelly of SB Nation went so far as to say the Vols’ coaching staff had their team playing “scared” on Saturday. That’s certainly going to be the view taken by folks who believed UT to be the better team all along. (I did not, having picked Oklahoma to win 31-27.) But Connelly’s own numbers seem to back up Jones’ thinking IF you put yourself in Jones’ shoes. The writer points out that teams going for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line in 2014 scored on 66.4% of those attempts. Not 96% or 86% or even 76%. We’re talking 66% of the time. Two out of three. Good enough odds to make me go for it, yes. But for a coach that one-third chance of not getting points will stand out.
Consider another example from later that same evening: Oregon found itself at Michigan State’s 1-yard-line facing a 4th-and-goal in the first half. On the road — again, I think that makes a difference to most coaches — the Ducks showed they weren’t scared and they went for the touchdown, by God.
The Ducks’ run play was stuffed and the Spartans took over in the shadow of their own goalpost. State ran six plays and punted from their 16. The punt went 53 yards and Oregon committed a penalty on the return. When they took over they were way back at their own 16-yard-line with no points or field position to show for their “we ain’t scared” bravado.
Oregon wound up losing 31-28 to MSU. Think a few Ducks fans would’ve liked to have had that field goal from the one when the final horn sounded in East Lansing?
And that’s the rub.
The decision at the goal line showed once again that Jones is a conservative coach. Had he gone for it and gotten it, there’s no telling how the rest of the game would’ve played out. Had his team been stonewalled and Tennessee lost by three, fans and media would now be hooting and hollering about how “you always take the sure points!” Guaranteed.
The guy gets paid big bucks to make those decisions. And to take the heat that goes along with those decisions.
Snippets on Conservatism
You might be saying to yourself, “But Jones wasn’t conservative when he came into Neyland with Cincinnati in 2011!”
Correct. In the second quarter of that game, Tennessee’s current coach decided to run the football on a 4th-and-1 at his then-team’s own 49-yard-line. The Bearcats were stopped.
Here’s the difference between the ’11 game and the ’15 game: Cincinnati was an underdog playing on the road. As noted above, you’ll see coaches roll the dice a lot more often under those circumstances. Also, his defense had given up three touchdowns to Derek Dooley’s Vols in four possessions (with a fumble being UT’s only drive-stopper). It was clear Cincinnati would need a lot of points and a lot of time of possession to pull the upset.
Oh, and when Jones went for it at his 49? Nixed. Minus-one yard. Tennessee wound up missing a field goal on the following series.
(Jones also called a brilliant fake field goal that went for a touchdown against Missouri last season. But the Vols were not moving the ball. That was more of a desperation call than a riverboat gambler call.)
But while I think Jones is conservative by nature, I don’t think — as many fans do — that conservatism is altogether bad. You might’ve heard of a couple of guys named Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. Together they conservatively won five SEC championships, one national championship and a lot of games in between.
If you have even talent or greater… if you’re playing at home… the conservative approach often works. Take Tennessee’s famous “Pandemonium Reigns” victory over Florida in 1998. The Volunteers managed a miniscule 235 yards of offense. Tee Martin threw the ball just 20 times all night and completed only seven of those for 64 stinkin’ yards. It was run, run, run and play defense. Florida obliged with five turnovers and UT’s conservatism won the day. One of the greatest — and ugliest — victories in Tennessee’s storied history.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Alabama. 1990. 9-6. Cough, cough.
But conservatism hasn’t hurt Volunteer football too terribly much in the past. The school is one of the 10 winningest programs in history. So there’s no reason to pitch Jones into the Tennessee River because of one not-so-great decision at Oklahoma’s goal line last Saturday.
And again, his decision really shouldn’t have surprised so many people.
About Those Dooley/Jones Comparisons
A lot of folks who didn’t want Jones hired in the first place have been filling up Twitter and messageboards with this fact: After 27 games, Jones has the same 13-14 record as his predecessor at Tennessee.
Well, to paraphrase former UT linebacker Steve Kiner, if you can’t tell the difference between Jones’ program and Dooley’s, you don’t know the difference between a race horse and a mule.
Jones’ teams have improved year upon year. Dooley’s flatlined. Dooley’s third team melted despite having what could have been a division-winning offense, filled with talent and experience. (Sports Source VFLs Jacob Gilliam and Daniel Hood have told me multiple times that they’d have liked to have seen that squad’s offensive talent in this coaching staff’s hands.)
Tennessee’s cupboard is being re-stocked by Jones. Under Dooley the cupboard was left bare. On our first show after his hiring I called Dooley a “bridge” hire and not a “destination” hire, stating that Vol fans had better hope he would be able to leave the program in better shape for his replacement, a la Mike Shula’s work for Nick Saban at Alabama. Didn’t happen. Hell, Dooley went one full recruiting cycle without inking a single offensive lineman. That’s unheard of. And unforgivable. And Jones has been paying for that kind of nonsense since he arrived.
Just to lend a tad more perspective to the record versus record argument, here are the records of two other Tennessee coaches after their first 27 games on the job: 24-3 and 11-12-1. Ah, ha! The second guy was a dope and the first guy a football Einstein, no?
Bill Battle took over a talented Big Orange program entrusted to him by Doug Dickey and Bob Woodruff. He opened 24-3 but finished with a pair of five-loss seasons and never won more than seven games in his last three seasons. The other guy — the one with the 11-12-1 mark to start his tenure — he was the aforementioned Majors who rebuilt the Volunteer program and won three SEC titles, the school’s first since the 1960s. Majors’ record was influenced by what he inherited from Battle.
I put the Dooley/Jones question to Gilliam, Hood, Will Overstreet and David Ligon on Sunday. Ligon did the talking. The others did the laughing. Watch and you should get a good idea of how these former Vol players feel about the gulf between Dooley and his successor. And remember, two of the guys chuckling played under both Dooley and Jones. Pretty telling stuff.
Now, I distinctly remember Tennessee knocking off a top 10 South Carolina team in 2013, Jones’ first season in Knoxville. Really. I’m certain it happened. I just checked the Vols’ media guide and there it was in black and white.
And that South Carolina team wound up going 11-2 on the season. Its loss to a 5-7 UT team knocked the Carolina out of the SEC Championship Game and, by default, out of a shot at a slot in the BCS Championship Game.
That win also came against the hated and despised Steve Spurrier, slayer of so many Tennessee hopes and dreams over the years. That win was at the time called a “signature win.” Really. It was. Jones took a lesser team — made a number of very conservative decisions — and beat a vastly superior USC team.
Yet here we are just two years later and some sort of collective amnesia has befallen the citizens of Vol Nation. Jones is apparently back to looking for a “signature win” or a “statement win.” At least, that’s what I keep hearing from many fans and many of my media brethren.
The reality is — and I’ve used this line on The Sports Source — wins are like haircuts and losses are like scars. Losses and scars never go away. They linger forever. When a coach loses, it’s on his permanent record in glowing red ink. Can’t erase it. No amount of winning will prevent future fans from saying, “Yeah, but remember when he lost to East Oxnard State?”
A win? A win is like a nice haircut… meaning you’re eventually going to need another one. I recall a great haircut I got at Franco’s Barbershop in the Grandview area of Columbus, Ohio back in 1999. Perfection. The man was the Lord of the Follicle. He could cut some serious hair. Ah, but alas, that haircut does me no good now. It’s long forgotten (like a lot of my dark hair in general). Also like Jones’ “signature win” over a much better South Carolina team and its revered/feared head coach.
Here’s another truth: Had Aaron Medley nailed his second field goal on Saturday and had Tennessee beaten Oklahoma, that win would have been celebrated right up until the Vols’ next loss. If UT had beaten Oklahoma only to lose to Florida a week from Saturday, the OU win would be as relevant as my 1999 haircut from Franco. “He still hasn’t beaten one of our MAIN rivals from inside the conference!”
You know that to be true.
Betcha right now that if Tennessee does win in The Swamp, that “signature win” will only remain a “signature win” until Jones’ squad falls to Georgia or Arkansas or Alabama.
That’s coaching. Wins are haircuts. Losses are scars. Always need another win. Especially the signature kind.
Medley’s Miss Made the Sky Fall
Here’s an interesting truth: If Medley had made the field goal referred to above, the Vols would be 2-0 right now and probably ranked inside the top 15. While UT would still have blown a big lead, the Vols would have been praised for taking Oklahoma’s best shot and finding a way to win. Talk of SEC East titles and even playoff runs would have been the storyline this week.
Instead, the sky has fallen for many. I don’t have to read Twitter to know this. I have family and friends who are equal parts heartbroken and outraged over Saturday’s defeat. The play-calling stunk, the coaches choked, the players have no killer instinct, on and on.
But if Medley had hit that kick and given UT a 20-17 win, none of those things would be on the tips of Vols fans’ tongues today.
That’s true of fans of all teams. True of me, too, when it comes to my favorite teams. Hang on for an tight win and the team gets kudos for winning ugly and not folding. Miss a field goal in football or an open three in hoops and it’s house-cleaning time.
Too Much Too Soon
There was a reason I thought Tennessee would finish 7-5 this season. Actually there were a few. First came depth. UT lost important players during August camp. I knew they would lose more as the season progressed. And while the backups of 2015 should be more talented, those backups are still — for the most part — green as grass. (Notice I didn’t say green as bamboo.)
Second, the schedule was never as easy as some folks wanted to believe. Oklahoma is a top 15 program and they’ve been battle-tested. They don’t look like Big 12 champs to me, but that was always a 50/50 game in my mind at best (which was a big improvement over last year’s odds). Florida at Florida? No, thank you. Regardless of the Gators’ coach or the location of the game, Tennessee’s coaches (Fulmer, Kiffin, Dooley, Jones) haven’t been able to beat Florida since way back in 2004. A 10-year-old kid would have no memory of the Vols beating the Gators. You might see this as a sure Vol victory, but I’ll not sip the Kool-Aid from that cup.
Then the Vols have a series of 50/50 games: Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina (Spurrier is always worthy of respect) and Missouri, whom the Volunteers have never beaten. Kentucky looks improved. Vanderbilt’s defense gave UT fits last season.
In the first quarter of Saturday’s game I received some tweets asking me if I would change my season prediction. No, I said, because I don’t think it’s right to go changing a pick. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But also, that game was far from over even with Tennessee up big. Just as none of the SEC games on the horizon appear to be put-it-in-the-bank sure things either.
If Arkansas State can hang with Mizzou and Jacksonville State can hang with Auburn and Arkansas can lose at home to Toledo, we should have all the reminders we need that on any given Saturday anything can happen. With a young team that’s still frighteningly thin in some areas, this season looks a lot more like seven wins to me than 10-wins. Always did if you looked at things dispassionately. And if you weren’t a media member trying to make an outside-the-box pick.
All that said, as a TV producer I sure as heck hope I’m wrong about the Vols’ final record. Sundays are much more fun when my VFL panelists come to work happy and smiling!
— John Pennington