Today Butch Jones will meet the press and tomorrow the Vols open fall camp. On Tuesday, August arrives. We’re in the last stages of the off-season, but the shadows of last year are stubborn.
This week John Adams polled a number of local media on how many games Jones needs to win this fall to be absolutely certain of another year in Knoxville. The consensus seemed to be that, if you’re looking for absolute certainty, Jones needed to go 9-3.
That might be true. But it shouldn’t be.
I’m sure you already know that 9-3 would be Tennessee’s best regular season since 2007. But I’m not sure we as fans know it well enough to not equate what would be the best season in Knoxville in ten years with the bar of safety for the head coach.
The “how many wins for safety” question is a valid one after last year’s disappointing end. But if our answer causes us to look at a 9-3 season as something less than progress in 2017, we should reconsider.
To be clear: including the bowl game, any path to 10 wins for this team is, by definition, progress. If the Vols go 9-3 and win any bowl. If the Vols go 10-2 and lose any bowl. Or if the Vols go 10-2, lose in Atlanta, then lose any bowl. Any of those results should be celebrated more than tolerated.
If after the bowl the Vols finish at 9-4 again (remember, a 9-3 regular season would have been good enough for the Sugar Bowl last year), there will be some who will point to three straight years of the same result and wonder if it will ever get any better. And, as pointed out in Adams’ story, a year like that always makes one ask, “How did they get there?” Not all 9-4’s are created equal.
But not all Tennessee teams are created equal either. A 9-3 regular season would have been, by definition, progress for last year’s team too. But when you start the year in the Top 10, 9-3 isn’t your goal. But this year’s team won’t be starting in the Top 10 and won’t be on some Top 25 ballots. There is plenty of talent on the roster. But much of it will have to prove itself.
What will Vegas say about this year’s team? The 2015 Vols went 9-4, losing twice as a narrow favorite (Florida at -1, Arkansas at -5.5) and beating Georgia as a +2.5 underdog. The 2016 Vols went 9-4 but, as you know, lost as a touchdown favorite at Vanderbilt and a two touchdown favorite at South Carolina.
It’s early, but 2017 odds from Golden Nugget have the Vols as a touchdown-plus underdog against Florida, Alabama, and LSU and a one-point favorite against Georgia. It’s entirely possible the Vols could be underdogs in all four of those games.
All of this to say: 2017’s 8-4 could easily and quantifiably be more impressive than 2016’s and/or 2015’s (depending on margin of defeat). But if the Vols do go 8-4, there will be some who want Jones gone mostly because they’re still upset about last year’s 8-4.
And rightfully upset about last year’s 8-4. But if that’s how you’d feel about this year’s 8-4, you’re probably not going to feel a whole lot better about 9-3.
At Tennessee, 9-3 will never be enough in the long run. It wouldn’t have been enough for some of us last year, and maybe that’s fair with six NFL draft picks and a 5-0 start. But in this year, on the heels of so many consecutive years of less? 9-3 should qualify as enough: to not just keep the coach safe, but – especially if it’s followed up with a bowl victory – to call it a step in the right direction and tip our caps.
College football is fun. It comes for 13 weeks, then a bowl, then it disappears for eight months. I continue to be of the belief that you don’t want to miss any opportunity to enjoy it.
In the month to come, most will pick this team to finish somewhere between 7-5 and 9-3. I’d bet the majority will land on the ol’ 8-4. There will be plenty of words to follow – in August – about if that result would be enough to save Butch.
My thought? If such a conversation is actually, realistically necessary at the end of this year, it will be painfully obvious. But this team and its coaches will have every opportunity to do something far better than just avoiding that pain.
It’s getting close to football time in Tennessee. Don’t forget to enjoy it.