Butch Jones seems optimistic about the state of the Tennessee football program.
“I think we’ve proven in the infant stages of our program that we’re closing the gap with everyone that we play and we’re getting better,” Jones told the media during the SEC coaches teleconference on Wednesday.
But if history can tell us anything about Jones’ future, his chances of fully closing that gap –– and winning an SEC title –– seem slim.
Now in his third year in Knoxville, Jones inherited a Volunteers program in need of tidying and leadership. His predecessor, Derek Dooley, had driven the once-celebrated program to a low point with three consecutive losing seasons from 2010-13. And that misery followed a 2009 season under Lane Kiffin, who led the Vols to a 7-6 record before announcing his departure for USC after just one year in Rocky Top.
Jones and an all-new Tennessee coaching staff went 5-7 in 2013, beating only South Carolina and Kentucky in conference play. But that was quickly forgotten the following spring, when he amassed a Rivals Top-5 recruiting class featuring a pair of in-state 5-star recruits in running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone.
With help from that 2014 class, Jones led the Vols to their first bowl win since 2007 in his second year, leading his team to a 7-6 (3-5 SEC) record.
And the hype in Knoxville was as palpable –– and audible –– as it had been in years as the 2015 season approached. Jones had once again reeled in a star-studded, top-5 recruiting class and the East looked wide open with UGA, Florida and South Carolina all looking to have something of a down year ahead. Prior to the season, the third-year coach’s side was a trendy pick to win the division and some pundits even saw Heisman potential in quarterback Josh Dobbs.
Yet following losses to Florida, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma, Tennessee sits at 5-4 (3-3 SEC) ahead of this weekend’s non-conference tilt with North Texas. Each of the team’s losses have come at a deficit of seven or fewer points.
And while Jones was hopeful Wednesday when discussing the trajectory of the program, one dreary fact looms over Rocky Top: You’re unlikely to win an SEC title if you can’t do it within your first three years in the conference.
In the SEC championship era, only Tennessee coaching great Phillip Fulmer and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville have been able to capture their first title after their third year with their respective programs.
Fulmer first captured the conference title in 1997 –– six years after taking over in Knoxville. The coach needed to end Florida’s five-year run of consecutive conference championships to bring the title to Tennessee. Tuberville also won his lone SEC championship in his sixth year at Auburn, back in 2004.
The eight other coaches who have taken the conference crown during the championship era all did so within their first three years:
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn led the Tigers to a conference championship in his first year with the Tigers –– 2013.
- Nick Saban’s 2001 LSU team won the SEC in the coach’s second year in Baton Rouge; he won the conference title in his third year with Alabama.
- Mark Richt needed just two seasons at Georgia to win an SEC title, capturing his first of two in 2002.
- Urban Meyer’s first SEC championship came in his second season at Florida, back in 2006.
- Following Saban’s departure, Les Miles was able to win his first of two conference titles in 2007, his second year as LSU coach.
- Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik won the SEC in 2010 –– his second season with the Tigers.
- Former Alabama coach Gene Stallings won the first ever SEC championship game in 1992, his third year with the Crimson Tide.
- Steve Spurrier won the SEC in his second year with Florida, 1991, before going on to appear in six straight conference championship games, winning five. (Spurrier failed to win the SEC in his 10-plus seasons at South Carolina.)
Why do coaches who don’t win the conference in their first three years with a program seem to struggle? Is it a lack of patience from SEC athletic directors? Decreased recruiting leverage? Something else? No one can say definitively, but in a year when first-year Florida coach Jim McElwain was able to capture the SEC East with Will Muschamp’s recruits, it’s difficult for Tennessee fans to ignore the facts.
If the former Central Michigan and Cincinnati head coach is going to work out in Knoxville, he may need to become who Tennessee fans hoped he could measure up to all along –– Fulmer, who captured back-to-back SEC championships well after his third year at the helm.
The Volunteers still have to play Missouri on the road and Vanderbilt at home in the weeks following the matchup with North Texas. Jones is currently 17-17 as Tennessee’s head coach.
— By Jules Tompkins, Special to SEC Country