The above headline shouldn’t be construed as a public call for head coach Butch Jones’ job after the 2016 season, if Tennessee falls short of capturing the SEC East title.
Ole Miss entered the 2015 campaign with similarly ambitious expectations — the likely swan song for elite-level juniors Robert Nkemdiche (defensive line), Laremy Tunsil (offensive tackle) and Laquon Treadwell (wide receiver) — and the Rebels’ season (2nd place in the SEC West, Sugar Bowl victory) was an unqualified success.
Rather, it’s time for the Volunteers — citing the Jones regime only (21-17 overall) — to move beyond the carefree fun of occasionally upending a conference rival, handling Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky with minimal resistance, finishing second or third in a watered-down East division and subsequently invading sun-splashed Florida cities like Tampa (Outback Bowl) and Jacksonville (TaxSlayer Bowl) during the postseason.
It’s also time for Tennessee to stop going 1-2 or 0-3 against the annual Big Three of Alabama, Florida and UGA, which partially explains why the Volunteers haven’t sniffed an SEC East title since 2007.
Yes, drawing the vaunted Crimson Tide as a permanent crossover can be a real killjoy … but it’s also time for UT to clear that obstacle in the near future.
Sometime like 2016.
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It’s easy to make seemingly definitive judgments off bowl games; but it’s also important to remember that not every program treats postseason outings like an all-or-nothing proposition.
Sometimes, the 12-15 practices leading up to a post-Christmas or Jan. 1 game — enabling freshmen and sophomore backups to garner crucial reps, without stealing time from the starters — can be more valuable than a standalone bowl triumph.
But it’s different for Tennessee. The Outback Bowl thrashing of Northwestern — one of the nation’s stingiest defenses during the regular season — dramatically raises the bar of expectations for next season, especially with a senior-to-be quarterback (Joshua Dobbs), Heisman Trophy candidate (tailback Jalen Hurd — 130 yards, one TD in the Outback) and a fast, physical, ball-hawking defense (ranked 16th nationally in points allowed) carrying the torch for 2016.
And frankly, the Volunteers should welcome the ramped-up projections. The aforementioned Butch Jones will experience his fourth Signing Day with Tennessee in early February, and his 2014 and ’15 classes consistently earned top-10 honors among the various Web sites (including 24/7 Sports).
As such, with a steady flow of blue-chip playmakers entering the fray, the days of rationalizing fourth-quarter fades to Oklahoma, Alabama and Florida should no longer be tolerated.
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The non-partisan, but passionate fan in me was disturbed by Tennessee’s loss to Florida on Sept. 26.
With 10:19 left in the fourth quarter, Hurd’s 10-yard scoring run opened up the Volunteers’ lead to double digits, at 26-14, and provided Jones with the apparent no-brainer decision of attempting a two-point conversion — given how leading by 12 or 13 points can be inconsequential that late in a game.
Ideally, a coach should sell out to bump that coveted lead to 14 points.
Instead, Jones played it needlessly and perhaps foolishly safe, opting for the sure-thing extra point. But this move, seemingly innocuous at the time, provided a spark to Florida’s offense in the final minutes.
On the ensuing possession, the Gators patiently chewed up 17 plays, 86 yards and six-plus minutes of clock, culminating the drive with a 5-yard scoring pass from quarterback Will Grier (remember him?) to Brandon Powell. (Florida now trailed 27-21.)
Tennessee then responded with a fruitless three-and-out drive, netting zero yards.
That paved the way for Grier and Co. to produce the go-ahead touchdown in the waning seconds, capped off by Antonio Callaway’s 63-yard scoring reception — prompting the season’s most raucous crowd roar at The Swamp.
With the crucial extra point, Florida went ahead 28-27. The Gators would hold on for victory … as Vols kicker Aaron Medley narrowly missed a 55-yard field goal at the final gun.
Which brings us back to Jones: SEC coaches sometimes bear the look of autocratic figures when roaming the sidelines on fall Saturdays (praise/blame the TV executives), aware of certain suggestions from the staff during games, but ultimately riding their own gut calls during crucial moments.
For the most part, that’s fine. They’ve earned the right to be proven correct once more.
But every SEC head coach — from Saban down to Vandy’s Derek Mason — needs that one Keeping It Real assistant who’s free to grab the leader at any time during a game — without fear of reprisal — and remind him of certain pre-scripted or common-sense decisions. And two-point quandaries (either yay or nay) should sit atop that list of chores for the Keeping It Real coach.
After all, if you thought Tennessee’s 2015 season was full of stomach-churning outcomes … just wait until conference and national titles are on the line next year.
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There is no such thing as a ‘cake’ schedule in the SEC; some are simply less diabolical than others.
Mark the Volunteers in the latter category for 2016: For the non-conference slate, Tennessee has eminently winnable games against Appalachian State (home), Ohio (home), Tennessee Tech (really?) and a cool, but manageable neutral-site clash with Virginia Tech, on the hallowed NASCAR grounds of Bristol (Va.) Motor Speedway.
For SEC road outings, there are doable trips to Texas A&M, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and one daunting clash with UGA. On the home front, the Volunteers will entertain Florida (Sept. 24), Alabama (Oct. 15), Kentucky (Nov. 12) and Missouri (Nov. 19).
All told, it’s the ideal schedule for a peak contender to make a viable run at a conference championship. In fact, after Alabama, Tennessee should be prohibitive favorites in its final five games (South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt).
But ay the rub: Over a stretch of five Saturdays during September and October, the 2015 Volunteers incurred a 1-3 record against Florida, Arkansas, UGA and Alabama.
And there are no byes for next season’s four-game gauntlet of Florida, UGA, Texas A&M and Alabama.
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Did you catch Dobbs’ impromptu, tightrope-walking touchdown run against Northwestern, on the heels of a busted play out of the shotgun (momentary fumble)?
When viewing the play, Dobbs had seemingly morphed into some orange-clad doppelganger to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, whose dream season at Auburn featured many athletic rushing touchdowns down the right sideline.
Dobbs’ touchdown run (his second against the Wildcats) was also a sterling example of how much patience and experience the kid has accrued through the years.
In his collegiate debut as a freshman (October 2013), Dobbs might have been the lone bright spot in Tennessee’s 45-10 blowout loss to Alabama, guiding the Volunteers to their only touchdown (mop-up duty). On that day, Dobbs looked every bit of a raw, perhaps overwhelmed newbie … but it was also a subtle showcase of the future, assuming he could develop into UT’s full-time quarterback.
That progression took place in the middle of his sophomore campaign (2014), with Dobbs once again marking his seasonal debut against Alabama (accounting for nearly 300 total yards and two TDs in relief) … before taking charge after that, leading the Vols to a 4-1 finish, including a decisive bowl victory Iowa.
Fast forward to the recently completed junior season: Dobbs (2,291 yards passing, 26 total TDs) evolved into a 60-percent passer. He starred in all nine victories. He also accounted for multiple touchdowns eight times — highlighted by his Newton-esque performance against UGA, amassing 430 total yards (312 passing) and five TDs in Tennessee’s exhilarating comeback win.
Which brings us to this: When Dobbs takes on Alabama for a final time next fall, the Vols won’t be staring at an obvious physical mismatch across the way, and he won’t have to endure the patronizing tag of being a work-in-progress at the college level.
He could be a finished product come then.
Dobbs will also be one of the most experienced players on the field, no matter who stays or goes among the Crimson Tide juniors — heading into the upcoming NFL draft.
That’s the beauty of college football: Nothing can beat that finite window of opportunity when athletic gifts and age-old experience perfectly sync up; and for 2016, it’ll be time for Dobbs, Hurd and Coach Jones to break on through to the SEC title game in December.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.