HOOVER, Ala. — Tennessee football has one ultimatum this season to go along with its goal of winning its first SEC Championship Game since 1998: Beat Florida.
It’s that simple, it’s that important, and nothing less will satisfy the vast majority of the Vols’ fans.
Coach Butch Jones will be wasting his breath if he makes any attempt to rationalize how all the games count the same, or that the team focuses on one contest at a time.
That all makes sense, but an 11-game losing streak to the Gators does not, particularly in the well-documented and heartbreaking fashion the past two losses have occurred.
The past two setbacks to Florida haven’t just put a dent in Tennessee’s seasons — they have also taken a piece out of Jones’ credibility and the perception of his ability to handle pressure and manage close games.
It’s not fair, but it’s what comes with the territory of coaching the Vols.
Former UT athletic director “Diamond” Doug Dickey once said that Tennessee coaches are judged on how they fare against Alabama, Florida and Georgia, and that’s largely still the case.
Here are five questions for Jones at today’s SEC Media Days in Birmingham, with snappy answers he’s welcome to borrow:
1. Is this the year Tennessee competes for a championship?
Snappy answer: Tennessee football coaches are expected to compete for championships every year.
But, yes, this appears to be the Vols’ best chance at winning the SEC in many years. And with more than a few underclassmen expected to turn pro after next season, it could be a couple or few more years before UT is in such a prime position again.
A Sept. 24 win over Florida should provide enough momentum to make an SEC championship a reality.
2. Has Josh Dobbs improved as a passer?
Snappy answer: Dobbs is a team captain and model student-athlete, and chances are he’s improved in ever facet.
The reality is that Dobbs isn’t a prototypical pocket passer and makes a lot of throws off the run. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when one considers the stress that puts on a defense and the pass protection he has had to work with.
Dobbs throws the ball well enough to win a title, provided the team can replicate last season’s rushing numbers. The Vols rushed for more yards per game than any UT team dating back to 1989.
3. Is linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin healthy?
Snappy answer: That’s a question for the trainer, and a situation that will continue to be monitored closely.
Any time you lose your leading returning tackler (105 stops) with a spring shoulder injury, it’s a concern.
That said, the 1998 Vols won a national title with All-American and future NFL All-Pro Al Wilson dealing with a shoulder injury (subluxation) throughout the season.
Linebackers are pretty tough guys, and UT is pretty deep at the position.
4. Can Tennessee beat Alabama?
Snappy answer: The Vols held a fourth-quarter lead over eventual-national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season, so with 17 starters back you’d think UT is capable of beating any team in the nation.
Most are picking the Crimson Tide to win the SEC this season, but only because they don’t believe the Vols have the backbone to get it done in the clutch against great competition.
No one doubts Tennessee has the potential to win it all, they just question Jones’ coaching and the team’s guts.
5. What’s up with the 3-stars in recruiting?
Snappy answer: Tennessee feels good about the players they have committed, or else they wouldn’t have offered those prospects scholarships.
The reality: there will likely be a handful of players who de-commit, either because they take interest elsewhere, or the Vols recruit over them.
UT currently has 18 commits in the 2017 class, and 16 of them are rated “3 stars” on the scale of 1-5.
The star rating shouldn’t be overblown, particularly since Jones and his staff have proven they can identify talent that fits their scheme.
The de-commitment part is more a reflection of the troubling trend of recruiting becoming more fluid than ever. The Vols had 11 players de-commit at some point during the 2016 recruiting cycle, per 247Sports.