Jarrett Guarantano grimaced in pain, trotting onto the field after a Kentucky timeout set up the final play of the game. He took the snap, unleashed a bomb downfield that was caught by senior receiver Jeff George.
Three yards short.
On a Hail Mary that was supposed to be caught to win the game. Like the rest of the season, it simply fell short.
Now, we all wonder how long we’ll have to wait on what seems like inevitable news on coach Butch Jones, who surely can’t survive this, can he? When George was tackled, UT’s record dropped to 3-5. The Vols are 0-5 in the conference now.
That’s even more painful than whatever injury Guarantano battled through.
Did the strong-armed Guarantano’s pain prevent him from getting it all the way there? If so, that would be Tennessee’s luck. We saw the Vols fall victim to their own cruel Vol-dom all night. This is the same team that saw a ridiculous blanket unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called at the first of the game on both teams that ultimately cost them two of their best defenders in Daniel Bituli and Rashaan Gaulden.
[Gaulden will miss the first half of next week’s game against Southern Miss, too. Seriously, has that ever been called? Only SEC officials, man. What kind of idiocy was that?]
Regardless, it was only the beginning of Tennessee finding a way to mess up the game. On the play before Kentucky took the final lead with under a minute remaining on quarterback Stephen Johnson’s designed run, Johnson threw a ball that was tipped in the air and into the arms of Nigel Warrior.
It would have been a difficult interception as he rolled to the end zone turf, but if you catch it, the game is over. He didn’t. One play later, UT was losing.
That was only the worst of the luck that came all night. Senior receiver Josh Smith was carted off the field. The Vols again saw a false start penalty on the goal line keep them from six points in what ultimately became a field goal. Later in the game, freshman Brent Cimaglia missed two field goals that could have given the Vols an insurmountable lead.
Instead, UT kept handing the game to Kentucky despite getting four turnovers, scoring touchdowns and actually looking like a decent team for snippets of the night.
These Vols keep finding ways to lose, and time is running out for Jones and his staff. The Vols — you have to figure — can’t beat LSU. That means they must beat Southern Miss, Vanderbilt and Missouri just to make a bowl game.
That isn’t happening the way things are right now.
As prized recruit Cade Mays visited Clemson and watched the Tigers beat Georgia Tech on Saturday night, UT was losing to Kentucky for just the second time in 33 years. The last time it happened, it signified the beginning of the end for Derek Dooley. It may usher in the end for Jones.
Time is wasting now. You may ask what can be done at this point of the season? The answer is salvaging some hope for the future, giving these players in limbo a direction, even if it may not be the direction they want or even if it means losing recruits in the process.
If Butch coaches against Southern Miss next week, there may not be 50,000 people in Neyland Stadium. Unfortunately, there may not be anyway.
Nobody wants to hear about all the good things Jones did for this program right now, and that’s a shame. It’s the nature of college football, but there were some good things; there were some good times. The talent level and the overall program are in better shape than the program he inherited.
But when you get right down to the bottom of the barrel, the end of a tenure, the only thing that really matters right now is this: Jones came to a Tennessee program that couldn’t make a bowl game, and this 2017 version of the Vols looks like it won’t make one, either.
A long line of blunders, off-the-field frustrations and futility have led to what we’re seeing on the field this season. Maybe it all started when the major red flag began flying in the middle of last year, when a supposed team leader, junior running back Jalen Hurd, who was about to become the school’s all-time leading rusher, simply quit the team.
Back then, we searched and scrambled, looking for an answer. We didn’t want to believe that it was the latest in a pattern, that the “brick-by-brick” class that saw so many defections was maybe just not what we all thought it would be.
Instead, we should have known that when the first ever Jones commit, the kid who began to help Jones build — receiver Vic Wharton — transferred to California, followed by the Hurd situation, this was deeper than we could even realize.
You know what they say about hindsight.
Now, fast-forward to this season, and you see unkept promises that are leading to a divided locker room, you see the holes on the roster, you see the infighting, you see the recruits dropping. Above all else, you see the offensive futility, the coaching blunders, the bad hires and the losses piling up. You see Georgia bursting onto national scene in Year 2 of Kirby Smart. You see Alabama embarrassing you on the field, weeks after the Dawgs did.
We’re about to see Florida enter the coaching market, a team with deep pockets, fertile grounds and bragging rights on the Vols. That’s another reason why the difficult decision must be made.
I pulled for the Vols every single step of the way tonight. But this was an 18-wheeler we all saw coming from a mile away, and we were stuck in the intersection with nowhere to go. You could feel that UT was going to lose this game. You just knew the Vols would find a way.
And that simple fact right there is why a change needs to happen now more than ever. You expect Tennessee to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You expect them to find a way to fail. Despite the solid performances of Guarantano, running backs Ty Chandler and Carlin Fils-aime and a few others, you just knew there would be players put in a position to lose the game because we’ve seen exactly that too often under Butch Jones.
Here we are. Back again. Another mediocre hire that we’d hope would mature stayed stuck in neutral until it started rolling back down the hill from where it came. This program is not in shambles, but this team is. If you don’t do something now — right now — you run the risk of everything falling apart. Again.
We’re all out of bricks.