By now, everyone reading this has seen the highlights (if we can call anything in that shit-show a “highlight”) of the Tennessee-Florida game yesterday. Most importantly, everyone has seen the final play of the game. If you have not, I have accidentally posted it, but definitely without watching it, below.
Despite leading the game in every measurable statistic, the Volunteers found a way to, again, do too little, too late, and choke the game away in memorable fashion, a theme which has become all too familiar in the Butch Jones era. Jones’ constant in-game decision making blunders have cost his teams countless games in the past five seasons, despite almost always having the more talented team. Blowing games as the underdog can be forgiven, but at some point, a coach at a program like Tennessee, which has now been reloaded with elite SEC talent, has to put up or shut up. Yesterday’s game has finally convinced me that it is time for Butch to shut up. Tennessee fans can thank Butch for making the program nationally relevant again, an improvement from the Dooley years, but there is no longer a path forward for a coach that has tread water for three seasons.
First, let’s break down the decisions yesterday that brought us to this point. Other than the hail mary defense, which we’ll get to in a minute, the biggest joke of the game was the first and goal situation in the third quarter. Down 6-3, Tennessee completed a pass to receiver Marquez Calloway to set up first and goal from the one yard line. Did they give the ball to John Kelly, who was averaging 5 yards per carry, to punch it in? No. Instead they threw a fade, which absolutely should have been intercepted. The only person who throws a fade on first and goal from the one is a 13 year old trying to make sure his star receiver in Madden makes the Pro Bowl. Luckily Butch, somehow, got bailed out by a taunting call, giving him a free pass to do what he should have done the play before, this time from the “the ball is basically touching the end zone” yard line. Instead, offensive savant Butch Jones, refusing to miss the opportunity to show what a creative genius he is, sent out his backup quarterback in shotgun formation. Now I love shotgun. I am perfectly fine with almost every play being run out of shotgun. The glaring exception, though, is when you have the ball on the one yard line. At that point, you are snapping the ball five times further back than the amount you need to move it forward and I cannot come up with one justification for that. This time, not only did the play not work, it didn’t even take place. The Vols false started and the ball got moved to the six. Three passes later, the Vols threw an interception and came away with nothing. John Kelly had run the ball down Florida’s throat all day and he didn’t get a single carry in a first and goal situation. This sequence alone was enough to have me calling for Butch’s head.
Nevertheless, despite this terrible goal line play calling, and a few more minor instances of similar decision-making (how do you turn a 34 yard field goal into a 51 yard field goal?), the Vols managed to rally and tie the game at 20 late in the fourth quarter. Florida got the ball back and executed some piss-poor clock management, leaving them with only nine seconds left with the ball in their own territory and no realistic way to get into field goal range in such a short amount of time. The game was almost certainly headed to overtime unless Florida scored on one play. Fourth-quarter Butch, though, decided he was not about to get shown up by third-quarter Butch and devised a plot that would ensure he was remembered as the true villain. Staring down a team that was, again, basically in “score this play or it goes to overtime” mode, Butch sent out a nickel package. Not a dime package, not a prevent package, but a defensive set you typically run on 3rd and 8. The result? You already know.
My favorite part, though? Butch’s defense of his decision.
You didn’t have a dime? This isn’t the third quarter on a 3rd and 14. You don’t need your standard defensive personnel out there. You have Marquez Calloway. You have Jeff George. You have enough athletes that you can run out four guys who can jump up and swat away a deep ball. If Florida beats you Jauan Jennings style, fine. Sometimes a guy makes a play. But you can’t make the decision that helps him do it.
Maybe the most damning part in all of this is that this is not unfamiliar to Tennessee fans in the Butch Jones era. Butch truly has a penchant for blowing close games, oftentimes despite having the better team. Hats off for the Florida comeback last year, but other than that, Butch’s only real triumphs have been against good South Carolina teams and those have both been several years ago now. In contrast, this staff has countless letdowns to their names. Oklahoma in 2015, late collapse at home. Florida in 2015, late collapse against a clearly inferior team. Arkansas in 2015, home loss to an average team. Texas A&M in 2016, suck all game and come up short late. South Carolina in 2016, disastrous road loss. Vanderbilt in 2016, I’m not even touching that one. And Butch’s record against the SEC West? 0-8. Butch is an elite recruiter, there is no denying that. But when it comes to big, must-win games, it’s either “too little, too late” or “epic, soul-crushing collapse.” It’s either making adjustments too late or not appropriately responding to the other team’s adjustments. Both of these are symptoms of being out-coached.
Even the wins have been unremarkable since Florida last season. Remember when Butch had all summer to prepare his team for the triple option yet they looked like they’d never seen the offense run before? I do. Hell, even Georgia last year Butch got bailed out by a great individual effort. Seconds before the Jennings catch, Georgia completed a deep ball almost identical to the pass Florida won on yesterday. You would think that 11 months would be enough notice for Butch to learn from his mistakes. Apparently, it was not.
I caveat all of this by stating that I have been a long-time defender of Butch Jones. I have oftentimes argued that if you can’t have Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Jim Harbaugh, or Dabo Swinney, you should be happy with what you have. I have held the belief that 8 or 9 wins should be enough for most programs and coaching change is almost always a detriment. After yesterday, though, I can no longer stick to that talking point. The Vols were absolutely the better team on both sides of the ball and left with nothing to show for it. Last year’s Vols were better than an eight win team. This year’s Vols will almost certainly be more talented than their win total too. Butch Jones is an elite recruiter, but that may be his curse. There is simply too much depth and talent on this roster and in next year’s recruiting class to let an average-at-best game manager continue to waste it. Chip Kelly is unemployed. Bobby Petrino is underemployed. I have a hard time believing that neither one would jump at the chance to come coach this roster. I will definitely give Butch until the end of the season and would urge everyone to do the same, but if things continue to go the way they have gone, and if yesterday’s all-too-familiar story line is any indication, it may be time for the Vols to make an upgrade at the head coaching position. The Florida loss, and more specifically the way it happened, may be too much for Butch to overcome.