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How must-win is this Florida game for Tennessee’s Butch Jones?

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If the Gators make it 12 in a row over the Vols, the pressure’s going up.

South Carolina v Tennessee Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Steven Godfrey: Hey, it’s Florida-Tennessee week! So, let’s talk about UT head coach Butch Jones and the incalculable weight bearing down on his psyche at this very moment.

On the field, Jones guided the Vols out of the glorious Derek Dooley funk. Dooley alienated Tennessee VIPs (fundraisers, admin, boosters, and even ex-players), recruited poorly, and lacked as an in-game coach. He might go down as one of the worst modern hires at a Power 5.

What Lane Kiffin did to Tennessee was unfortunate. What Dooley did was far worse. Sometimes I talk to folks at Tennessee who can’t help putting any problem under Jones in perspective by comparing it to Dooley. It must have been really bad.

Problem is, Butch has lacked that signature win, so far going 10-14 in conference play. There was a win over then-No. 11 South Carolina in 2013, but the Vols have 11 straight losses to Florida, nine to Alabama, and had five to Georgia until last year’s 38-31 win in Knoxville.

You can thump second-tier Big Ten teams in bowls, you can up your win total each season, and you can sign good-to-great classes. But it’s a lot simpler than that: Butch has to beat Florida or Alabama. Has to.

Bud Elliott: This is the first year in which you can argue Tennessee has more talent than Florida. Nobody would argue that Tennessee has more talent than Alabama. Most of Tennessee’s players would not be on scholarship in Tuscaloosa. Those rosters are not comparable.

I’d argue Jones has won the games he is supposed to win and lost the ones he is supposed to lose at an almost perfect rate. Vegas is pretty non-biased. He is 21-3 as a favorite and 3-12 as an underdog at Tennessee. Twice he’s been a pick-’em against Florida, losing two close games.

Godfrey: How deep was the valley of recruiting under Dooley? Is the situation comparable to somewhere like Penn State, where recent top-30 classes are tasked with compensating for previous sanctions?

Bud: The situations are somewhat comparable because the roster turnover going from Phillip Fulmer to Kiffin to Dooley was tremendous. Dooley was legitimately bad at his job by almost any measure.

In Dooley’s only two full classes (2011 and 2012, as his 2010 class was comprised mostly of Kiffin recruits), he signed 32 players, 17 of whom were four- or five-stars. That’s a good percentage, but 32 signees over two years is pretty low. The major problem was the extreme attrition from having three coaches in five years. That also affects player development, as schemes and techniques keep changing.

Jones has fixed some issues. He signed a small-ish class in 2013 of just 18 signees, but has signed 96 in his last four cycles. Tennessee has recruited at a consistent top-15 level under Jones.

Alabama v Mississippi Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Godfrey: Using Alabama as a metric for your development is unreasonable. The problem is, Vol fans watched Hugh Freeze beat the Tide two years removed from Houston Nutt’s 2-10 garbage fire.

Maybe those early Freeze teams were more talented than this Tennessee roster. Maybe the reality of trying to recruit as an elite without a talent-rich home base has finally caught up with Tennessee.

Bud: I’d argue Ole Miss has had better results, but could also be about to go down, thanks to the NCAA. And Freeze has also laid many more eggs than Jones has, losing to Memphis, getting blown out by Florida, etc. Would you trade upset wins for being upset in epic fashion? Perhaps.

Godfrey: That’s a great question. I think if you asked Vol fans if they’d take a loss to App State in Week 1 of this year in order to flip-flop the 19-14 final vs. Bama last year, they’d do it.

Bud: Tennessee’s 2017 recruiting class is potentially in danger of trending down, though, if Tennessee doesn’t get a marquee win or two. The Vols have 25 commitments, and while some are probably underrated, only four of the 25 are rated four- or five-stars. Tennessee needs to be bringing in more elite players than it does good ones, and if Tennessee goes 9-3 or 8-4 again, it’s hard to see that happening.

Georgia is charging hard, and after a two-year dip, Florida is doing better, as well. Jones has to win this year.

You said, "But it’s a lot simpler than that: Butch has to beat Florida or Alabama. Has to." I’ll ask ... or what? Is Tennessee going to fire Jones for going 9-3 or 10-2 without a signature win?

Godfrey: Are the Vols SEC East Champions in this scenario? I think the unspoken bar this season is to win a bad division and lose to a really good Bama team twice.

Short of some kind of six-win finish, I can’t see a firing happening right now. Athletic director Dave Hart is being not-so-gently sent into retirement, and no clear leader has yet emerged as a replacement. Money’s still going to Dooley.

I should clarify: I think Jones survives into 2017 even with more losses to Bama and Florida, but it won’t build him any more equity. He’ll still be dealing with significant factions who doubt his ability to return the Vols to their 1990s luster.

Jones hasn’t had a benchmark win, but every other metric shows progress. Objectively I think he’s done well, solving a lot of UT’s personnel problems. The bigger question, at least to me, is whether another decade of Fulmer/Manning-level success is a realizable goal.

That’s when Tennessee truly owned its own state. The layout is sort of wonky for CFB — Knoxville is in the far east of the state, where talent is thin. Memphis and West Tennessee are much deeper, and while that area certainly has a Vol contingent, so do many fans/boosters of other SEC schools (Ole Miss, Bama, and Arkansas, namely).

I live in Nashville, dead center, where you’re likely to see as many Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, or Georgia flags on cars or homes as you are UT or Vanderbilt. There isn’t a singular, dominant feel of the home team(s) like you experience in Jackson, Birmingham, or New Orleans.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Alabama
Butch Jones and Peyton Manning
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Bud: Let’s say 9-3 with losses to Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, and no SEC East title. I take it that makes his seat pretty hot for 2017.

The Vols have to be careful about expectations. They are the only East team that must face college football’s No. 1 program on an annual basis. They are at a recruiting disadvantage compared to Florida and Georgia, due to the lower amount of talent in-state and the geography of the state.

Fulmer won the SEC East in six of his 17 seasons. He was 5-12 against Florida, going 2-1 against Ron Zook, 0-4 against Urban Meyer and 3-7 against Steve Spurrier. And while he had an 11-6 record against Georgia, he was just 3-5 against Mark Richt.

The SEC East’s best coaches during Fulmer’s time all owned him. He went 8-2 against Alabama coaches Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, and Mike Shula, but just 2-4-1 against Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. If you’re scoring at home, that is a combined record of 8-20-1 against Meyer, Spurrier (at Florida), Richt, Stallings, and Saban (at Alabama).

I am sure Jones would love to face the slate Fulmer faced, but that’s not happening. Oh, and back when Tennessee was good, occasional SEC East threats Missouri and South Carolina were not in the league and not a threat, respectively.

Godfrey: OK, so we’ve made Tennessee fans feel a lot better about things. Good job, Bud.