Tennessee football has a major problem.
No, it’s not their injury report, a document that stretches all the way from Knoxville to Gainesville, or Josh Dobbs’s impending graduation, or their schedule, or their players starting bar fights, or robbing Pilot's, or their starting quarterback hot-dogging on a jet ski, or anything like that.
No, their problem is a much bigger than that, one without a simple fix.
Being likable and easy to get along with is a really valuable skill in life. Bosses and co-workers are way more willing to tolerate you in your job, even if you’re underwhelming, as long as you have a cheerful, carefree, media-friendly personality that’s accompanied with a world class smile. Mack Brown is the perfect example of this; during his tenure at Texas (1998-2013), he, in a watered down Big 12, won the conference championship only twice and went 6-9 against “Big Game” Bob Stoops, including five losses in a row to Oklahoma from 2000-2004. There was the national title season in 2005, but most years included either a loss to the Sooners, or multiple defeats against vastly inferior teams. Brown also recruited virtually unopposed in-state from the other Texas schools, who were all abysmal and wandering in the wilderness during this time; Texas A&M (twice), Baylor (twice), and Texas Tech (once) won 10 games or more in a season a combined five times during Brown’s tenure. Meanwhile, Brown had 58 players drafted from 2004-2013.
It’s hard not to look back at the Brown era as disappointing, considering all his advantages. But you didn’t hear anything negative about him from the media or fans until he was basically forced to retire at the end of the 2013 season. Why? Because he was a likable guy who was quick to smile and who knew how to kiss the media’s ass. He gave them great soundbites, access to whatever they wanted whenever they asked for it, and he never lost his temper and was always professional, even after a loss. He was a good ole boy who knew how to play the game.
The same is true of Butch. He’s willing to take pictures with anyone (including Allen Iverson?), he talks in platitudes and catch phrases in the exact same way idiotic television pundits do, and he’s active on social media and has embraced America’s meme culture (Third Down For What?). Fans love this stuff. "Butch just said 'Brick by brick' for the nine-hundredth time since he’s been in Knoxville? Awesome!" "'We just don’t know how to win yet'? Hell yeah, he’s right!" "He said 'Critical', 'discipline', 'mental errors', and 'fundamentals' in a single halftime interview? YES!!!!! I LOVE MEANINGLESS BUZZWORDS, LIFETIME CONTRACT RIGHT F%#*ING NOW!!!!!"
Here’s the thing though; by any objective standard, Butch's for year tenure on Rocky Top has been a disappointing underachievement. For the good of the conversation, I’m willing to throw out the first two seasons, years where he was doomed to fail due to the ineptitude of the Dool-Aid, orange pants era. Jesus Christ himself couldn’t have guided those teams any further than what Butch did, though, to be fair, there’s pretty good evidence Jones royally screwed up the quarterback situation in Year 2 by not playing Dobbs, despite the fact that he was clearly the best man for the job. Remember that Alabama game in 2014 where Dobbs came in after a disastrous, “I never had a chance” first quarter from Justin Worley, and absolutely turned the Vol offense, and the entire game, around? ‘Bama led 20-0 after the first quarter, but with Dobbs at the helm, Tennessee outscored them 20-14 the rest of the way and made it competitive. They won 4 of their last 5 with Dobbs and finished 7-6. Was 8-5, or even 9-4 possible if Dobbs had started the whole season? I don’t see why not, considering they only scored 9 points against Florida, and went to Nathan Peterman in the Georgia game when Worley got hurt, a game they only lost by three.
We can’t forget 2015 either, a season that saw the Vols blow three leads of at least 13 points, often on the back of terrible, conservative play calling and atrocious clock management that can be pinned directly on Butch and the coaching staff. 2016 has been the exact opposite; Tennessee has come out flat, unprepared, and uninterested in all seven games, and has faced double digit deficits in the first half six times. Honestly, they’re an extremely lucky 5-2, considering everything that’s happened in games they’ve won:
· Appalachian State: The Mountaineers were horrible in the kicking game, missing both an extra point and a field goal, and Tennessee was fortunate to recover a Dobbs fumble that went into the end zone in the overtime period. If all three of those things don’t happen, the Vols start 0-1.
· Virginia Tech: Tennessee won 45-24, but fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter before being the beneficiary of five back-breaking fumbles by the Hokies, turnovers that completely turned the momentum of the game in their favor. If Tech could’ve simply held onto the ball, it could’ve been an entirely different game.
· Florida: The Vols, after trailing 21-0 in the second quarter, and blowing multiple scoring opportunities, erupted for 38 unanswered points en route to a 10 point victory.
· Georgia: Dobbsnail Boot.
They’re like 10 plays away from being 1-6. Geez.
And then you add in this; the offensive line has long been disastrously bad for years now, and Butch hasn't been able to do virtually anything to improve it. Mike Debord's play calling in the first half has been worse than every Lil Uzi Vert freestyle, but at the end of the day, Butch hired him, and everything that goes on with the staff reflects back on him and is his responsibility. Plus, Tennessee
is still yet to put together a grown-up, complete, 60 minute win against a ranked SEC team during the Butch years, a time that's also seen them go 0-10 against Top 10 teams.
And yeah, I get it, Tennessee’s suffered through more injuries this season than everyone who ever crossed paths with Steven Seagal in his movies, but guess what? Injuries are an enormous part of a game where grown men violently collide with each other for three and a half hours every Saturday. Did the Vols lose 49-10 against Alabama on Saturday solely because they were severely banged up? No, of course not. Sure, they were outmanned and outgunned, but they were literally as flat as Flat Stanley himself in the first half for the seventh straight week, before the fatigue and lack of talent left on the field created the circumstances for them to get their doors blown off later in the afternoon. Plus, injuries don’t prevent the healthy members of a team from showing up prepared, focused, and ready to play. They looked lost in the first half in all three phases of the game for the seventh straight week. To me, the lack of motivation and lack of preparation falls squarely on the coaching staff, and that comes from what happens during the week leading up to the game.
Think about this: Tennessee has been at their best this season when the coaching staff was the least involved. All of their comebacks have resulted from a wild, playground-esque, hurry-up offensive attack that’s allowed the sheer talent and experience of their offensive playmakers to physically overwhelm everyone in their path. You want two quick fixes for the Vol offense? Dobbs needs 15-20 running plays a game, and the offense needs to play up tempo and huddle as little as possible. Those things have happened in the second halves of games, and Tennessee has been way more successful that way; why aren’t they doing that all the time????
Here’s a question; is Butch even a Top 15 college coach? Here’s his credentials: two Big East Championships at Cincinnati in 2011 and 2012, and a 26-19 record at Tennessee.
Let’s dig deeper into those Big East titles though; in 2011, his Bearcat team didn’t play ranked foe all year, and he actually pulled off the most incredible feat of all time when he lost a game by double digits to Derek Dooley’s Vols. In 2012, Cincinnati played two ranked teams and lost to both of them. Ugh. That ain’t good.
So let’s unpack this more; He’s certainly not in the Nick Saban (5 national titles, 6 SEC Championships)-Urban Meyer (3 national titles, 2 SEC Championships, 1 Big 10 Championship)-Jim Harbaugh (revitalized a dead Stanford program, and turned Michigan around instantly) class, and I know I’d much rather have Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (3 Big 10 titles) Washington’s Chris Petersen (dominated at Boise 7 years, and now has Washington rolling) and Bob Stoops (9 Big 12 titles and one national title). Bobby Petrino is an enormous risk, but just purely at coaching football, he’s a superior mind who has won big basically everywhere he’s been. Mark Richt won averaged almost 10 wins a year at Georgia for 15 seasons and won two SEC Championships, including one in his second year. I’m in no way a fan of Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, but his SEC tenure has been much more impressive than Butch’s thus far, AND he has a head-to-head win over Coach Jones. So does Arkansas’s Bret Bielema, a guy who also won three straight Big 10 Titles at Wisconsin. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has averaged 10 wins a year, won the ACC twice, and came within six points of winning a national championship last season. James Franklin hasn’t gotten Penn State back on track yet, but you’ve clearly got something going for you as a head coach if you can win 9 games in back-to-back years at Vanderbilt. Stanford’s David Shaw has played in four “BCS” bowl games and won the Pac-12 three times. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher won the national championship three years ago and has won the ACC three times. Dan Mullen has done about as good of a job at Mississippi State as anyone could’ve asked for, including a 10 win season back in 2014.
That’s 15 guys right there, and that’s without including names like Les Miles, Art Briles, and current San Francisco 49er coach Chip Kelly, who is always a threat to return to college. Miles averaged 10 wins a year at LSU and captured two SEC Championships and one national title, and Briles turned a perpetually disappointing Baylor program into a national championship-level contender by winning back-to-back Big 12 titles and finishing three seasons in a row with 10 wins. Kelly’s offensive scheme revolutionized football on all levels, and he won three straight Pac 12 titles at Oregon. Heck, are we sure he’s better than Florida’s Jim McElwain? They’re 1-1 against each other, and McElwain won the SEC East last season in his first year. And what about Brian Kelly, who was at Cincinnati before Butch was? Kelly went 12-0 in his last season as the head coach of the Bearcats, before bolting to Notre Dame, a program he guided to an undefeated regular season and BCS Title Game appearance in 2012. And you could easily make an argument for Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Nebraska’s Mike Riley, and probably a whole host of other coaches.
If history is any guide, then to win a national title, which I think would ultimately be everyone’s goal if they’re involved in a top level program, you need at least a top 15 coach. The last ten years, the only team to capture a national title without a really special head coach was Auburn with Gene Chizik in 2010? How did the Tigers pull it off? By (allegedly) paying Cam Newton, one of the five best college football players of all time, like $180,000 to come suit up for them for one season. So unless Butch is lucky enough to find some once in a lifetime, uber-athletic freak quarterback with a cannon arm that he’s willing to rain cash down on like J.R. Smith at a strip club, he’s probably not ever going to guide the Vols to the playoff, much less lead them to a national championship.
So what does Tennessee do? Fire him? That would probably be inappropriate now, considering the program has gotten incrementally better during his tenure, even if they’ve underachieved and he’s been directly responsible for more mistakes than a bunch of lightweight drunk sorority sisters playing Operation. Unfortunately, the Butch years are starting to look like a less successful iteration of the Mark Richt Georgia years. You know, underachieving season after season after season, and low fan base optimism from years of having your hopes and dreams dashed and destroyed by the team caving under the pressure of big moments and games. Every UGA fan was tired of Richt by the end, and he actually won a lot of games! Butch hasn’t yet, and based on everything we’ve seen, doesn’t appear like he’ll ever be able to.
He's taken Tennessee from Point A (the Dooley years) to Point B (fringe SEC contenders). I'm not convinced, and we certainly haven't seen it anything yet, that would tell me he's the guy to take them from Point B to Point C (serious SEC and National Title contenders every single year). That's what he was hired for, and that's what Tennessee fans should expect from their football coach. Anything less than that and we're just Kansas football, a program that loses their freaking minds if they win 9 games.