KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones entered Saturday’s game having led Tennessee to its longest win streak of the millennium and its first top 10 ranking in 10 years, but he wasn’t kidding himself at halftime.
Florida led the Vols 21-3 at halftime, and Jones and his players heard the boos as they exited the tunnel.
“I know there’s a lot people that didn’t want me here at halftime,” Jones said. “I get that, that’s part of the job, love is conditional, and then at the end of the game, everything flips, and that’s why you have to keep things in perspective and keep grinding each and every day.”
Tennessee staged the biggest second-half comeback in Neyland Stadium history, beating the Gators 38-28 and snapping what had been an 11-game losing streak in the SEC East Division rivalry.
The Vols’ transformation was nothing short of magical.
Senior quarterback Josh Dobbs led the team on five consecutive touchdown drives, and the defense held Florida to three-and-out on seven of the Gators’ eight second-half possessions.
Jones said he knew how delicate things would be in the locker room at intermission when he addressed his team.
“We circled them up and spoke to them; it’s ‘what did that team need’ at that particular time,” Jones said. “I wasn’t going to go in there and berate them and belittle them because they did not need that at that time, we did not play our best football, and they heard the boos.
“You’re dealing with 17- to 21-year-old kids. What they needed to know, is that we talk about having each other’s back, and we had each others back in our football program.”
Jones pointed to the six dropped passes in the first half — more than Tennessee had in their previous 10 games behind — and the big plays the defense had allowed Florida in the opening quarter.
“It wasn’t up to our standard, that was not the way we were going to play football here, so it came down to execution,” Jones said. “I could see the look in our eyes, and they needed to know I believed in them, but did I challenge them, absolutely, I challenged them because I thought they needed it.
“But really it was the players understanding it was on us, and then going out and doing their job and doing it well.”
The No. 11-ranked Vols (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has another challenge on their hands at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday at No. 25-ranked (3-1, 1-0) Georgia.
“We know it’s a week-to-week season, and the more you win, the more that’s at stake,” Jones said. “We’re playing a fine football team that’s very disciplined and very well-coached, and it will be our first road test of the year.”
Jones understands the Tennessee expectations will remain high.
“I bleed with our fan base, I know our fan base is very hungry. I know what they want, and I don’t want to let them down. Our coaches don’t want to let them down, and our players don’t want to let them down,” Jones said.
“We don’t live in a society of what have you done for me lately; we live in a society of what can you do for me next.”
Jones said the Vols’ 10-game win streak is evidence his players know how to put wins behind them and focus on the next game.
As for the pressure to continue to win and lead Tennessee to its first SEC Championship game appearance since 2007, Jones accepts it.
“This is my home, this is my community, and I love everyone here,” Jones said. “What more can you say? You want to coach at a place that’s passionate and loves their institution and loves their football team, and there’s no better place than Tennessee.”