Tennessee coach Butch Jones sounds like he’s making excuses if he talks about the challenges the Vols have faced this season – even if it’s the truth.
Excuses or not, the Vols have lost to four teams by a combined 17 points. Each has gone on to further success.
“I believe the combined record of those teams are 33-7,” Jones said, referring to Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama. “I think now it’s evidence of how close we’re getting in building this football program. I think it has shown our players that we needed to do a little bit more. We needed to continue to work on the fundamentals and what it really takes to play a winning football game.”
The Vols have faced the fourth toughest schedule in the nation this season, according to teamrankings.com. Critics want to point to blown losses against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. While that is certainly a disconcerting trend, those teams have all proven worthy opponents.
Oklahoma is No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings and could make the top four if it wins out. Florida is No. 8 in the rankings and wrapped up the SEC East in early November. Arkansas looked like a floundering program before it beat the Vols. The Razorbacks have turned things around with a four-game winning streak, including victories on the road against Ole Miss and LSU.
“I think we’ve had one of the most difficult schedules in all of the country,” Jones said. “I think that needs to be taken notice of. I look at all the combined records of all the other teams in the country. Look at the success that Florida is having, the success that Oklahoma is having, the success that Arkansas is having.”
Of course, there’s a common thread among that trio of losses. Tennessee led each of those teams by 13 points or more before eventually losing.
“Really how to close a game out,” Jones said, referring to what his players needed to learn from this season’s shortcomings. “You just don’t close a game out in the final minutes. It could be in the third quarter. It could even be in the second quarter. Understanding that a game could be decided by two to three plays, even a season can be decided by four to six plays.”
The losses have resulted in team-wide introspection.
“You find out a lot about yourself,” Jones said. “You find out a lot about your team and your character when you suffer through adversity. I think winning hides a lot at times, but when you have learning lessons along the way you really find out about your mental makeup and what your program stands for and what it’s all about.”
“I think we’ve found out the program stands for a lot. Our players have continued to have great focus, a great mindset, continue to work week in and week out and I see us getting better and better and better.”
Jones isn’t going to hit the recruiting trail bragging about admirable losses. He doesn’t have to. Anyone who truly inspects the state of Tennessee’s football program should easily realize that the season’s close losses are worth taking note of.
“I think they understand,” Jones said, “we’re getting closer and closer and closer.”