Here’s guessing you’ve heard what I’ve heard. “This is the single biggest game of Butch Jones’ career.” Tennessee’s visit to Florida is being billed as a make or break game for the Vols’ third-year coach.
It’s easy to understand why. Tennessee fans are sick of losing after about 20 years of mostly good — sometimes great — football (1983-2004). They’re sick of losing to Florida in particular after 10 straight defeats.
Many are still irked due the nature of last season’s Florida loss. Ditto UT’s come-from-ahead loss to Oklahoma earlier this month.
Vol fans are tired of hearing about rebuilds, youth, inexperience, and “next year.” Hell, Vol fans are just tired of everything right now. Makes sense. Nobody likes to lose, especially not the fanbase of one of the 10 winningest college football programs of all time.
So the only fix? Winning. Tomorrow. At Florida.
Now, the fact of the matter is that Jones is paying for years of losses by his predecessors. He’s 0-2 against Florida, not 0-10. And did you realize that in the 25 seasons since Tennessee and Florida became annual SEC East foes, the Vols have won exactly six times?
Six wins. Nineteen losses.
That streak includes the tail end of John Majors’ career, the entire Phillip Fulmer era, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and now Jones. So is it fair to dump a quarter-century’s frustration at Jones’ doorstep? No, but that’s why he’s paid $3 million a year.
Depending on the outcome of tomorrow’s battle in Gainesville, Jones will either be a hero or a goat come Sunday. (Our 11 o’clock show on Sunday morning will either be a wake or Mardi Gras… so be sure to tune in to WATE-TV 6!) But is this really the biggest game in the coach’s tenure? I don’t believe so.
Many folks have said on radio call-in shows this week that they would trade a few games or an entire season to see the Vols snap the Gators’ streak. I’m not buying that. Just as I don’t believe a loss actually drives nails into Jones’ coffin.
Here’s the truth about sports: A coach is only as good as his last game.
If Tennessee beats Florida tomorrow, Jones will be sitting pretty… until his next loss. Period. End of story. If UT beats UF and then falls the next week at home to Arkansas, you’ll hear/read a lot of folks complaining that Tennessee lost to a team that lost at home to Toledo. You know it. I know it. A loss to Arkansas would undo many of the positives a victory over Florida would bring.
Another example: You think the Florida win would provide Jones cover if he loses to Kentucky, for example, later in the year? No. Way. In. Hell.
The same is true in reverse, too. A Florida loss would tick a LOT of people off for the next week. To phrase it as Jones might, “the Power of the Now” would be against him. But that would change with a victory over Georgia or Alabama. Volunteer fans would forgive a Florida loss if their coach snaps the Bama losing streak down the road.
(For those thinking that a loss to Florida would guarantee future losses, consider Virginia Tech’s 2010 season. The Hokies opened 0-2 with losses to Boise State and FCS-level James Madison at home. They then won 11 straight games and reached the Orange Bowl. So a Florida loss — or win — wouldn’t guarantee future struggles or success.)
Majors and Fulmer used to say, “They remember what you do in November.” And sure enough, they would typically lose to an Alabama or a Florida (depending on the coach and his specific bugaboo) before running the table through Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vandy (or South Carolina, Kentucky and Vandy after the SEC expanded in 1992). By the end of the year, fans and media would all say, “If Tennessee could only play Team X at the END of the year.” As if the Vols’ late-season improvement wasn’t always aided by the fact that three tomato cans lined the November runway.
You need look no further than last year’s finish to understand what I’m getting at. The Volunteers closed out the regular season with a home loss to Missouri and then a hard-fought 24-17 win over a terrible Vanderbilt team. UT needed that last one just to get to .500. Vol quarterback Josh Dobbs looked decidedly human in both of those games.
Had the Vols’ season ended in Nashville it would have been a nasty, nasty offseason in the Volunteer State. But instead, Tennessee went bowling in Jacksonville where they walloped Iowa behind a scintillating performance from Dobbs. Naturally, that resulted in high expectations for 2015, predictions of 10-2, laughably unrealistic talk of Dobbs as a dark horse Heisman candidate, etc, etc.
Those things happen when your last game is a victory and you have months to dreamily sketch the score in your notebook. And that’s why I think we’ll be dealing with a massive overreaction following tomorrow afternoon’s contest. Jones will either be a hero or a goat. Capable of big things or incapable of winning big games. We’ll know the result of the “biggest game of his career.”
And that result will matter quite a bit… right up until his next big win or big loss. A make or break game? It’ll feel like it, for sure. But I don’t think it will be. Regardless of the result.
— John Pennington