Tennessee football outlook for the 2016 season. After years of rebuilding and plenty of promise, it’s time for the Volunteers to finally step up and win the East under Butch Jones.
The free passes can stop being handed out now.
It’s not like Tennessee got put in a coma like USC or Penn State after their respective issues.
It’s not like the program has been totally hamstrung by the ticky-tack violations over the years, and it’s not like it hasn’t been able to go out and get most of the recruits and talent it needs to succeed.
And it’s not like Butch Jones hasn’t had his chance to rebuild the former superpower.
The glory era of the 1990s is a long, long time ago, and while there have been some nice moments here and there, Tennessee football is supposed to be really, really good, and until recently, it just hasn’t been. But after building and building and rebuilding, now the program has to be Tennessee again.
Jones had some work to do from the Derek Dooley era, but by 2014 he came up with Scout.com’s fourth-ranked recruiting class, fifth-ranked in 2015, and without a ton of work to do after those classes, was No. 17 this year. He has more than enough extremely talented players to work with, but so does almost everyone else in the conference. There’s no excuse now when it comes to the team being good enough.
But even though Jones already proved he could hit the recruiting trail, he didn’t officially became an SEC head football coach until he 1) got a pay raise after a disappointing year and 2) survived his first real scandal.
A Title IX lawsuit against the school alleging a “hostile sexual environment,” including Jones allegedly saying a player had “betrayed the team” by assisting a woman claiming she was raped, came and went in a hurry. It could still become a factor at some point, but bottom line, the school stood behind Jones, there wasn’t an outcry from the fans, and life has gone on. However, if Tennessee has a bad year on the field, this could be a factor shifting the other way, especially considering the salary bump.
The team that was supposed to win the SEC East didn’t get it done going 9-4, but that didn’t stop Tennessee from giving Jones a $500,000 pay raise to get him to the $4 million salary mark despite going 21-17 in his first three years.
So the talent is in place, the stability is there salary-wise, and the controversy didn’t stick to the Teflon. Now it’s time to go to work.
Life in the SEC is about winning close battles against good teams, but it really is possible to say Tennessee came super-close to doing massive things last year with all four of its games coming by a touchdown or less, and with chances to win each one late. On the other side, that’s the knock on Jones and the 2015 Volunteers – they wilted under the pressure late in games.
That’s all supposed to change with experience, and now that Jones has been through the SEC wars for three years, and now that he has a whale of veteran team returning, it should be able to overcome the bumps along the way and start being on the right side time and again to finally finish the drill.
QB Joshua Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd lead an offense that returns nine starters, while the defense has two future NFL starters in DE Derek Barnett and DT Kahili McKenzie to work around and nine starters back in all. With only two tough road games at Georgia and Texas A&M, the Alabama and Florida games at home, and a layup of a back part of the slate, Jones has no reason whatsoever not to get his team to Atlanta for the SEC championship.
It’s all there. It’s all in place. It’s Football Time in Tennessee again, or at least it’s supposed to be.