KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones is coming dressed to his Monday press conference as a beleaguered coach being questioned by the same fan base and national media that celebrated him less than a month ago.
Remember the Butch Jones that got Tennessee football off to a 5-0 start and won 11 straight games?
The guy who took over a program that had won just two of its previous 16 SEC Games and in three short years led the Vols to their longest win streak since 1998-1999 and first top 10 ranking in nearly 10 years?
Well this is the same Butch Jones, except now he’s lost three consecutive games.
Sure, Tennessee has a 45-24 win over No. 23-ranked Virginia Tech, and that 38-28 win over No. 10-ranked Florida snapped an 11-game losing streak in that rivalry.
Then the Georgia victory featured a historic finish and snapped what had been a 23-game road losing streak to ranked teams.
But all that is old news, of course, as the Vols have slipped into a funk.
It started with a 45-38 double-overtime loss on the road at No. 7-ranked Texas A&M. That was costly in more ways than one, as play was stopped eight times to help injured Tennessee players off the field.
A depleted Vols’ squad — the attrition list has hit 19 at times — was dominated by No. 1-ranked Alabama, 49-10, the following week.
Then came Saturday, a 24-21 loss on the road to two-touchdown underdog South Carolina.
Jones, to his credit, showed up front and center after the loss to the Gamecocks without making any excuses for his coaches or players.
“You talk about owning it, we’ve got to own it,” Jones said, as collected and cool as he has been after any game this season. “It starts with myself, it starts with the coaching staff. You talk about being a determined football team. Some leadership needs to step up on this football team.
“It starts with myself and the coaches, but it’s everybody.”
One could point to injuries, or even the schedule, which was ranked second most-difficult in the nation entering into Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday night.
But Jones has made his share of mistakes, too, and they go beyond the sidelines and into his personnel management.
Specifically, Jones liked his team too much, and he trusted them to be a so-called “player-led team” in the offseason.
There were August practices where some players would show up and others wouldn’t, because “they know how to manage their bodies,” Jones said.
Obviously that wasn’t healthy for team chemistry in hindsight, and some of those self-managed players have had poor seasons.
Based on his history as a head coach, Jones will learn from it.
After all, is there another FBS football coach in the nation that has won as many or more regular season games at the same school from year to year over the course of three jobs and 10 seasons?
It’s not the worst thing in the world that in his quest to be a so-called “players-coach,” the 49-year-old Jones gave some of his stars too much power.
Jones figures to take the power back this week and begin to right the ship. Players that lack a team-first attitude could get cast to the side.
Some critics want to question the Xs and Os, and that’s always fair game.
Should there be a goal-line set? Perhaps a tailback lined up deeper in the backfield in short-yardage situations or the occasion inclusion of a fullback?
The offensive play caller and quarterback are lower-hanging fruit for the more casual fans.
Fact is, inadequate line play has submarined hopes for consistent success or developing an offensive identity.
The defense has made good second-half adjustments but has also been struck hardest with injuries and attrition.
Seven different secondaries have started in eight games, and the Vols have lost four of the top six defensive tackles in the rotation.
It’s fair for Tennessee fans to feel upset or disappointed.
But in doing so they should try to understand the real problems at hand and be sure to take note of how high Jones has elevated expectations.