This was arguably the worst week in Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee. And that was before the Georgia game started.
With his fan support further slipping away after a listless win against UMass, Jones attacked the media, complained about the negativity around the program, falsely claimed that the last two years of Tennessee football were among the best in the last two decades and got mocked on College GameDay. Then he lost to Georgia at home in an utterly humiliating fashion 41-0, a performance that that left the scent of inevitability all over Neyland Stadium.
The Tennessee administration, including first-year athletics director John Currie, may have wanted it to work out for Jones. They may prefer stability to change in the abstract. They may not want to pay a buyout and do a coaching search. They may feel like Jones runs a solid program Monday through Friday that recruits well and doesn’t have major off-field issues.
But at some point, the product is what it is — and it’s just not good enough.
LIONS ROLL: No. 4 Penn State blows out Indiana
Getting blown out at home by Georgia should be a wake-up call for Tennessee. This isn’t about whether the Vols’ fan base has unrealistic expectations (it probably does) or whether Jones has improved the program from the Lane Kiffin-Derek Dooley double whammy of dysfunction (he has).
The issue is that while Florida and Georgia had their own issues the last several years, Tennessee had a window of opportunity to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007. That’s all Jones had to do to secure his future at Tennessee. But he didn’t, and now the window seems closed for a long time.
Florida is just a flat-out better program, as it showed by getting to Atlanta the last two years despite having less overall talent than Tennessee. Georgia has come roaring back under Kirby Smart, and the way the Bulldogs are recruiting, it’s going to be hard for the Vols to catch back up any time soon.
For all of his embarrassing reliance on clichés and demand for positivity — qualities that simply don’t endear him to anyone in the intense environment of Knoxville — the biggest problem with Jones’ tenure is that he hasn’t kept pace with Tennessee’s biggest rivals.
And now that reality is impossible to ignore or explain away, which makes Saturday’s loss the most significant in Jones’ tenure. Before Saturday, was always a chance he could turn the narrative around. Now that seems impossible.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers for Saturday’s games:
Kirby Smart’s defense: Nick Saban’s former assistants have been a mixed bag as head coaches. And none of them have really been able to replicate the Alabama formula with success. But Georgia’s defense has a mini-Alabama look about it at the moment, making the Bulldogs a big favorite to win the SEC East. They held lifeless Tennessee to 142 yards of offsense, but this is getting to be quite a nice body of work.
The Bulldogs beat Notre Dame with defense —- Notre Dame had just 266 yards (55 rushing) — and smothered Mississippi State last week in a 31-1 win. With the amount of experienced talent Georgia has on defense, this may be one team capable of beating Alabama.
James Blackman’s confidence: The Florida State freshman quarterback didn’t have an easy assignment going into Wake Forest to try and get the Seminoles’ first win of the year. And though Blackman struggled for much of the game, completing just 11-for-21 for 121 yards, it was his last pass of the game that made all the difference. With the game tied at 19-all and less than a minute remaining in regulation, Jimbo Fisher had enough confidence to call a deep shot for Blackman, and he threw a perfect ball to Auden Tate for a 40-yard touchdown.
That allowed Florida State to escape Winston-Salem, 26-19, and head into a huge home game against Miami next week with a little bit of momentum after a tough start to the season.
Georgia Tech: If not for a bad fumble against Tennessee in the season opener, opening the door for a Vols comeback, the Yellow Jackets would be 4-0. Instead, they’re 3-1, but it’s been a promising start nonetheless for Paul Johnson’s team, which demolished North Carolina 33-7. Though it’s a small sample size against two struggling teams, Georgia Tech has taken care of business in early ACC games against Pitt and the Tar Heels.
Quarterback TaQuon Marshall continues to be a revelation, rushing for a combined 249 yards in the two games. But even more encouraging for Georgia Tech is its defense, which held both teams under 250 yards of offense. The Yellow Jackets look like a real contender in the ACC Coastal, and it’s quite possible their next game — at Miami on Oct. 14 — will have a big impact on the final outcome out of the division race.
Florida bettors: The Gators were a nine-point favorite over Vanderbilt, and it seemed they were unlikely to cover that spread when the Commodores scored with 3:14 left, closing the margin to seen points. But after an unsuccessful onside kick, the Gators faced fourth-and-1 at Vanderbilt’s 39-yard line. With Vandy having no timeouts left, Jim McElwain went for it, needing just a little push from his offensive line to end the game and run out the clock. Malik Davis got that yard, then broke free over the right tackle. But instead of sliding down, where Florida could have kneeled on it three times and run out the clock, Davis went ahead and scored with 1:42 remaining.
McElwain was upset with his freshman running back for not making the textbook play, but anyone holding a ticket on the Gators was ecstatic at the unlikely cover as they held on 38-24. Florida now faces a three-game stretch against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia — the first two at home, the third in Jacksonville — that will define whether McElwain can get his team to the SEC championship game for a third straight year.
Saquon Barkley’s Heisman hopes: Though you obviously can’t and shouldn’t count him out based on one game, voters look at numbers. And Penn State’s 38-14 win vs. Indiana simply wasn’t great for his numbers, being held to 56 yards on 20 carries. Though Barkley did return the game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown with a spectacular run, you typically measure running backs by their 100-yard games. Barkley has had some big moments this season to boost his Heisman case — including that 211-yard performance at Iowa — but a blowout win over a team like Indiana should be a stat-padder. Instead, it might have been a bit of a setback.
Anyone who can’t watch Bryce Love: Stuck on the Pac 12 Network on Saturday, Love put up one of the most eye-popping performances you’ll ever see (or won’t see if you have DirecTV). Love got 25 carries against Arizona State and it’s fair to say he made the most of them. Love, all by himself, rushed for 301 yards and 30 touchdowns — a whopping 12 yard average every time he carried the ball. For the season, he already has 1,088 yards on just 98 carries. Why isn’t he far and away the Heisman frontrunner again?
Situational awareness: Northwestern trailed Wisconsin 31-10 with less than 10 minutes remaining, so the Wildcats were extremely fortunate to still have a chance to tie the game with 1:09 remaining. Granted, their offense was unlikely to go the 98 yards required to send it to overtime, but at least they had the ball and a shot — at least until quarterback Clayton Thorson got sacked in the end zone by D’Cota Dixon on the second play of the series, effectively ending the game.
Thorson, who has a tendency to hold onto the ball, sprinted backwards and ran to his right to let the play develop before Dixon came barreling in to trip him down. Still, you’ve got to know a sack there is the one thing that just can’t happen. Get rid of the ball at all costs.
Minnesota: Though the Gophers’ 3-0 start under P.J. Fleck was not quite as impressive as it looked on paper, they had a golden opportunity to win their Big Ten opener against luckless Maryland and keep the momentum going before reality set in. After losing two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, it seemed that Maryland might have trouble winning any of their remaining games.
But as it turned out, third-stringer Max Bortenschlager did a competent job and the Terrapins ran for 262 yards on 47 carries to beat Minnesota in Minneapolis, 31-24. Though it’s a nice win for Maryland, it’s a big-time flop for the Gophers, who were minus-two in the turnover column and gave up 9-of-16 third down conversions to the Maryland offense. Minnesota now hits a stretch where it will be an underdog in five of its next six games.