Don't bet against Butch Jones
Why new coach will have Tennessee competing for SEC East title by 2014
By Phil Steele | Special to ESPN Insider
The Tennessee Volunteers' hiring of Butch Jones today from the Cincinnati Bearcats has raised plenty of questions among Vols fans. The first concern has to do with his readiness to take the big step up to coaching in the SEC. Second, he has to overcome the perception that he has ridden Brian Kelly's coattails to success in his previous stops at Cincinnati and Central Michigan.
The biggest question that Tennessee fans are likely to have today is this: How quickly can Jones get the program back into its traditional role of contending for SEC titles?
Oddly enough, I had my own doubts and misgivings when I first met Jones, but those were quickly laid to rest by his sharp focus and no-nonsense demeanor. He knows his X's and O's, but he also knows how important continuity is to a program, as there has not been much attrition at either of his head-coaching stops when he took over.
Thus far in his career, he has built up smaller programs working within the confines of their limited resources, but in Knoxville he will be working with one of college football's biggest bankrolls thanks to the SEC's large television contract and the 102,455 fans who pack Neyland Stadium for every home game.
In early November, I wrote in my bold predictions column that, after a 3-5 start to the season, the Vols would win their final five games, including the bowl, and Derek Dooley would keep his job. My reasoning was that Tennessee had already faced its toughest opponents of the season in Alabama, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia and that Dooley had done a good job of taking care of business against the teams he was supposed to beat in his career.
Tennessee looked like it was on its way to winning out with a 21-7 lead over Missouri at the half (the score made the game seem closer than it really was, as the Vols had a 383-64 advantage in rushing yards at halftime), but the end result was a painful 51-48, four-overtime loss. That defeat carried over into the next game, a 41-18 beatdown by Vanderbilt that earned Dooley the pink slip. Those two results, in certain respects, made Tennessee appear to be a worse team than it really was this season.
The reason I'm optimistic about Tennessee's outlook, starting with next season, is that the cupboard is not bare. In 2012, the Vols compiled their best offensive numbers since Peyton Manning was behind center. Jones is likely hoping that the SEC leader in passing yardage this season, Tyler Bray, will turn down the NFL and return to school and that Bray's go-to wide receiver Justin Hunter will do the same. (It's certainly possible, since both players' stocks have dropped throughout the course of the season.) If both players return, Tennessee should be a bowl team next season, even with a brutal schedule that features road trips to Oregon, Florida and Alabama.
While Jones has never coached in the SEC, just remember that neither did Nick Saban when he entered the league in 2000. Saban was a successful MAC coach at Toledo before working his way up the ladder at Michigan State and being hired by LSU. The same holds true for Les Miles, who was also a Midwest guy before continuing the success Saban started in Baton Rouge.
The bottom line is that Jones is a man who knows how to build a program and use the talent he has available, having compiled a 50-27 record in his six seasons as a head coach. He has won or shared four conference titles during that time, posting a better win percentage and more conference titles at Central Michigan than what Kelly produced before him.
Jones is about to become the Volunteers' fourth head coach in six seasons, and he will give the program a stability it has lacked. He knows how to shape the talent on hand into a strong team, and by 2014, he will have the Volunteers contending in the SEC East.