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Tennessee coach Butch Jones plans to win the final five games of the regular season and return as the Vols head coach.

Tennessee football mailbag: If Butch Jones exits, David Cutcliffe should top list

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football coach Butch Jones probably needs to beat Kentucky to feel safe about keeping his job, sources close to the situation have said.

Critics have been vocal of Jones on social media, some incorrectly forecasting he would be fired during the bye week, and others suggesting his firing would take place after a loss to Alabama.

First-year athletic director John Currie has stood behind his words where Jones is concerned, however, while closely monitoring the situation.

RELATED: SEC Country reports Jones needs strong finish to hold job

Jones and his staff have been told they will be evaluated on how they finish the season.

It’s unchartered waters for Jones, who was never on any sort of hot seat at his previous coaching stops, and has never won fewer games from one regular season to the next.

The Vols (3-4, 0-4 SEC) are 5 1/2-point underdogs at Kentucky (5-2, 2-2) in Saturday night’s 7:30 p.m. game at Kroger Field.

Tennessee will be missing star tailback John Kelly, who leads the team in rushing and catches and has accounted for 43 percent of the offense.

Still, this could be a make-or-break scenario for Jones.

If the Vols continue to play hard and Jones maintains control of the team, there wouldn’t appear to be any reason to hire an interim coach even with a loss in Lexington.

Tennessee Football Question of the Day

Who are we seriously looking at to replace Sgt. Carter? Is Les Miles’ name on the table? He knows the SEC, still has connections to Louisiana’s High School coaches, and knows what it takes to win in the SEC. If not, then whose name IS on the table? Can we get a top quality coach this time instead of an also-ran, pleeeeze?

Brent Boyd

I’m going to assume “Sgt. Carter” is a reference to Jones, whose clean-cut ways appeal greatly to employers, recruits and parents of recruits.

If Jones doesn’t return, he’ll be leaving the program in considerably better shape than he found it, from the standpoint of compliance, character of student-athletes (cumulative) and recent on-field success.

Even Jones’ most ardent critics would admit it has been a successful rebuild from the 2-14 league mark the Vols had the two years preceding his arrival.

There’s an argument to be made that Jones has earned another season to finish what he started, but Tennessee’s football team will need to aid that argument with strong performances Saturday night and into November.

If not, Tennessee’s search should start with a phone call to former Tennessee offensive coordinator and current Duke coach David Cutcliffe.

Cutcliffe, 63, is a coach who could unite the savvy portion of the fan base as well as the administration.

Cutcliffe is a proven winner, and that’s why last May the Blue Devils signed him to two-year contract extension that runs through 2021.

Cutcliffe, the two-time ACC Coach of the Year and 2013 National Coach of the Year, appears comfortably set at Duke to coach out his career should he choose.

Tennessee would likely need to double his current salary — reportedly now at $2.6 million — and provide him with a generous buyout to ensure the Vols are indeed “all in.”

There are other names out there, Miles included.

But winning at Tennessee is harder than it was in the 1990s, when the Vols enjoyed a decided advantage in facilities and national exposure — pre-cable TV expansion.

With Phillip Fulmer at Currie’s disposal as an adviser, and Peyton Manning always willing to lend expertise when called upon, Cutcliffe would immediately be considered.

RELATED: Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer hired as special adviser to University of Tennessee

Currie’s only revenue coach hire at Kansas State was Bruce Weber, an older, proven head coach with a strong compliance record.

Weber, like Cutcliffe, was also a former National Coach of the Year in a different Power 5 conference.