Have you ever been in a relationship with a guy/girl that you really liked, but there were a few things you hoped he/she would grow out of? She really got along with your parents, and she liked the same music as you, so for a long time you made excuses for her. But dangit, one day you realized she just wasn’t gonna outgrow that weird obsession with her cat, or her terrible breath.
Many Vol fans are experiencing those same feelings today. When Butch settled for extra points at home against Oklahoma instead of going for two in 2015, they chalked it up to inexperience coaching in the big games. When Alvin Kamara was averaging only six touches a game, they blamed offensive coordinator Mike Debord. At what point do Vol fans take Butch out to lunch and tell him this thing just isn’t working anymore?
Calls to “fire Butch” over the last twelve months have been premature and immature. Last year, poised for a big season, the Vols hot start out of the gate turned into a slow stagger across the finish line due largely to the injury bug. Butch has appeared to be a solid coach who continually came up just short. To this point, the dismissals have been valid. But all of that changed Saturday
Saturday a highly motivated and talented Vol team took the field in the swamp and encountered something no Vol team has seen in nearly thirty years; an inferior Florida team. The casual observer could discern Saturday that the Vols were noticeably faster and more talented than a suspension ridden Florida team. In spite of an inspired effort from highly motivated players like John Kelly, and a freakish display of will power from Justin Martin, the Vols yet again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
If the Vols had won, the interceptions, incorrect routes, and big plays given up would be footnotes. And the Vols would certainly have one had it not been for three poor coaching decisions in key moments.
- Midway through the third quarter, the Vols had the ball on the Florida one yard line. John Kelly was running through Florida defenders like a knife through butter, to the tune of an estimated twenty broken tackles. At this point, Coach Jones ditched the girl who brought him to the prom and decided to dance with the pass game. The Vols called four consecutive pass plays inside the five yard line, ultimately resulting in an interception, and no points whatsoever.
- Down three, late in the fourth quarter, the Vols were in a similar situation. With first and goal on the ten yard line, it was same song second verse. The Vols threw the ball three times in a row for no completions, resulting in a field goal to tie the game. More importantly, those clock stopping in-completions resulted in the Gators having one minute, and two time outs to drive the ball down the field to win with a field goal. If the Vols run the ball three times here, if they put the ball in the hands of their best player, John Kelly, the worst case scenario is a field goal to end regulation and move into overtime.
- With eight seconds left in the game, Florida had a first down on their own twenty-six yard line. That’s enough time to complete a deep ball for a touchdown, or to set up for a field goal. The Volunteers took a time out, presumably to game plan. What they actually used that time for is unclear, perhaps they practiced dunking the football in the now infamous trash can. Off of a time-out in a clear Hail Mary situation, the coaches chose to call a cover 2 zone defense. I’ve never coached a down of football, and I’m under no illusions that my Madden pedigree makes me an expert play caller. However, I know enough to deduce that leaving only two men to cover the deep ball, the only pass Florida could possibly benefit from throwing, was not a good decision. Cover 2 left Vols safety Micah Abernathy one on one in coverage with a speedy Florida wide receiver. With no help to cover four receivers running deep routes, Abernathy found himself out of position to make a play, and Florida scored easily. Some have compared this play to Jujuan Jennings’ legendary Hail Mary grab last year against Georgia. There is no comparison. On that play, Georgia lined up in a special prevent defensive package, and Jennings had to leap over three Georgia defenders to haul in the miracle pass. Saturday, the Florida receiver was wide open, with no one within five yards of him on either side.
Simply put, the coaches did not put a team that gave its all in the swamp in a position to win. The Vols have relied on freak plays for over a year to overcome incredible circumstances and win games. Earlier this year, Georgia Tech gouged the Vols for a record number of yards due to a horrible defensive scheme. The Vols won the game in spite of that due to a freak blocked field goal late. Sometimes, its better to be lucky than good, but no one is lucky all the time.
Vol fans like Jones. He’s a good cultural fit here. He gave them something to believe in again. He’s not a bad coach. But Saturday Vol nation woke up to the fact that Butch isn’t maturing from a good coach to a great coach. If Jones cannot evolve, he too will be subject to a rude awakening, when he learns Tennessee won’t exchange the comfort of good for the allure of great.