KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - So the good news for Tennessee is that they’ve found a quarterback. The bad news is every other thing that happened in a 15-9 loss to South Carolina that drops the Volunteers to 3-3 and 0-3 in the SEC, and puts Butch Jones’ job on the precipice.
Multiple sources told SB Nation that it’s unlikely Tennessee will move to fire Jones (33-24 and 14-21 in league play through five seasons) this weekend with a road game at Alabama looming next week.
If a change is coming in Knoxville, no one seems to think it makes sense to appoint an interim seven days before UT and its 10-year losing streak take on the No. 1 Crimson Tide.
Which coach on Tennessee’s staff would you consider likely to be competitive against Alabama? Defensive line coach Brady Hoke? Offensive coordinator Larry Scott? Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who might not even want to be a head coach?
Sources indicated that if a move occurs, it would likelier be at the end of the regular season.
However, the trip to Kentucky right after Alabama now looms as a must-win. Essentially, Butch would have to win out after losing to Bama in order to have a chance.
As with most things in the Jones era, the long view is favorable (if you squint hard), and the football games are hard to watch.
Three times, Tennessee (ranked 112th nationally in red zone offense entering the week) reached first-and-goal. Each time, it settled for field goals. Botched plays and questionable calls inside the 20 marred otherwise impressive drives. Two of those goal-to-go drives came in the first quarter, meaning the Vols could’ve leaned on an early 14-0 lead. Instead, they’ve now gone 10 consecutive quarters without a touchdown.
Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano was almost all of the Volunteers’ offense, passing 11-for-18 for 133 yards and scrambling for first downs (his rushing yards were nuked by seven sacks). When very little else looked efficient for the Vols’ offense, Guarantano provided the possibility of dynamic action, especially when plays broke down or when the freshman danced around the pocket.
“There was some miscommunication at times, some things that I could’ve done better, some things the offense could’ve done better,” the quarterback said after the game.
Guarantano said he couldn’t sleep or eat before Saturday. He held the ball too long on pass plays. When he scrambled on a third down in the first quarter, he cut left into a trio of defenders instead of right into the open field and an easy touchdown.
He was very much a freshman, but he kept drives alive with his feet and he was a legitimate threat in the zone read, so much so that he told reporters after the game South Carolina’s defense scraped to him the entire second half.
And the potential game-winning touchdown pass he throw to receiver Brandon Johnson was a good ball:
“I think after the first snap, I was good,” Guarantano said about taking over the team in his first official start. “I think it’s always been like that, and it was today. I was comfortable out there. I think I’m starting to get the hang of this thing, and it can only go up.”
It could go up, and if Guarantano continues to develop into a formidable quarterback just as his head coach is let go at or near the end of the season, that would be a very, very Jones occurrence.
Throughout each blown lead or pyrrhic victory or unbelievable loss, Jones has been able to point to an overall positive trend.
Tennessee sports information provided such stats on Saturday: Entering 2017, the program had back-to-back Top 25 finishes and nine-win seasons for the first time in nine seasons! Three straight bowls for the first time since Phil Fulmer!
These are all true things. Tennessee is remarkably better than it was before Jones, but it’s come at the cost of its fanbase’s sanity. Jones can tell you it’s better and continuing to improve, and he’s right. But Vols fans can tell you they want him fired, and you can see why they’re ready to make a change.
After Saturday, Jones’ strong recruiting isn’t winning him much support, especially after three recent decommitments.
It’s not enough to point to marginal gains year over year when they’re pocked by games like this one.
Even after the 41-0 annihilation by Georgia, beating South Carolina might’ve gotten enough equity to let Jones and his team survive what’s sure to be another beatdown next week and a potential run through a manageable November.
Jones was short but diplomatic after the game, answering questions about Scott’s playcalling and the Vols defense’s inability to slow a nine-minute, fourth-quarter drive for a South Carolina field goal.
When pressed about the inability to translate two weeks of “good practice” to the field vs. South Carolina, Jones momentarily lost his cool.
“Did we not play a good football team? That’s a good football team,” he said of the Gamecocks.
There are no Butch-isms left.
He offered no “Champions Of Life,” or “Leadership Reps.” Maybe he has a quarterback of Tennessee’s future. Maybe he has another recruiting class coming in to create the depth at programs the Vols used to consider peers.
Butch only has the longview — the promise that his program is slowly, slowly getting better — and his words left.