In a little less than six weeks, the University of Tennessee football team will travel south on I-75 to Atlanta for a Labor Day showdown with Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (Sept. 4, 8 p.m., ESPN).
Rarely does a single game mean so much for a coach as this year’s season-opener does for Tennessee’s Butch Jones. The simple fact of the Vols’ trip to a city where they have not traditionally fared well is this: If UT loses, it’s difficult to envision a scenario that keeps Jones in Knoxville for the 2018 season.
That makes the Georgia Tech game the single biggest game of Jones’ coaching tenure in Knoxville. One doesn’t often say that about a non-conference, non-rivalry game — particularly one that opens a season — but the stakes couldn’t be higher for Jones and the Vols in this one.
Jones is widely considered to be on the hot seat as the 2017 season begins. In fact, his seat may be hotter than any other coach’s in the SEC — and in this dog-eat-dog conference, there are always plenty of hot seats to go around. But the natives, as they say, are restless here in East Tennessee, after UT last season squandered its best chance to win the SEC East in a decade. The university has a new athletics director who has already proven he won’t hesitate to pull the plug on beleaguered coaches. And it all adds up to one uncomfortable truth for Jones: he has to win in 2017 . . . or else.
“Wait,” you say, “a loss to Georgia Tech wouldn’t knock the Vols out of the SEC race. How could it possibly cost Butch his job?”
To be fair, I’m operating a bit on assumptions here. Obviously, if Tennessee loses to Georgia Tech (the early line is Vols -4, if you’re wondering) but recovers to beat Florida and Georgia, the Georgia Tech loss will be rendered moot. And although beating Alabama seems a pipe dream for the 2017 Vols (the early line is Bama -24, if you’re wondering), a win over the Crimson Tide would cure all sorts of ailments.
But could the Vols recover from a loss to Georgia Tech to beat their big-ticket SEC foes? That’s the question. There is a lot of pressure on this football team as the season begins. The players have heard the grumbling about their head coach, who hasn’t done himself any favors during the long off-season with tone-deaf quips about “champions of life” and “five-star heart.” The coaching staff includes many new faces who know their redemption in the unforgiving world of college football coaching depends on Tennessee’s success this season.
Simply put, a loss to Georgia Tech in the season opener would be demoralizing for the Vols, even if the game is expected to be a close one. It seems likely that such a loss would cause the stitches to begin unraveling. If the Vols then went on to lose to both Florida and Georgia, as expected, the hemorrhaging would begin. And Jones would be on borrowed time.
It has been argued that, in terms of must-win games, last year’s season-opener against Appalachian State was bigger than this year’s game against Georgia Tech. But Tennessee was widely expected to beat the Mountaineers, and easily. Sure, there was talk about what Appalachian State had done to Michigan a decade earlier, but no one talked seriously of the Mountaineers leaving Knoxville with a win.
To be sure, a loss to Appalachian State last season would have been even more demoralizing than a loss to Georgia Tech would be this season. The Vols were ranked in the preseason Top 10, they were widely expected to win the SEC East, and some folks were even talking openly about a berth in the college football playoffs. Then came the headaches of a Thursday night in Neyland Stadium, which saw the Mountaineers take the Vols to overtime and nearly walk away with a monumental upset win.
But in terms of must-win games, there are key differences between Appalachian State in 2016 and Georgia Tech in 2017. Butch Jones had equity in 2016. He had recruited well and his teams had posted improved records each year during his tenure. There wasn’t much that could have cost him his job last season.
In fact, the loss to Vanderbilt late in the season was just as bad as the loss to Appalachain State would have been in the season-opener . . . perhaps even worse. Surviving the Mountaineers allowed Tennessee fans to experience the euphoria and unbridled optimism of the first several weeks of the season, but by the time the Vols had squandered the SEC East, those first few weeks didn’t seem to matter.
The loss to Vanderbilt didn’t cost Jones his job any more than the loss to Appalachian State would have. But it cost him a lot of the equity he had accumulated. That demoralizing loss, along with the loss to South Carolina that cost the Vols their shot at winning the SEC East, ate up all of that equity. Which puts Jones in the must-win position as the 2017 season begins.
One thing Jones has going for him at this point is his recruiting class. The 2018 class is currently ranked No. 6 in the nation, according to Rivals, and is second in the SEC, only to LSU. But if the losses start to mount early, how many of the Vols’ verbal commitments will renege? If the recruiting class starts to slip in the rankings and decommitments pile up, it’s going to hurt Jones’ reputation even more.
On the other hand, the Georgia Tech game is an opportunity for Jones to prove that the listing ship has been righted. If UT goes to Atlanta and dominates a game that is expected to be close — much the way Derek Dooley’s Vols did to N.C. State a few years ago — spirits will begin to lift in Big Orange Country. Follow that up with a win over Florida or Georgia — or both — and the narrative will change in a hurry.
After all, Tennessee doesn’t have to win the SEC, or even the East division, for Jones to save his job. This is widely expected to be a rebuilding year of sorts, and an 8-4 season — maybe even a 7-5 season — is all Jones needs to survive for another year, when his new quarterback will have a season of experience under his belt and his coaching staff will be more in sync and battle-tested.
But a loss to Georgia Tech throws everything into question.
Make no mistake: This is the biggest game of Butch Jones’ career.