Tennessee’s Loss to Vanderbilt Puts Butch Jones Firmly on the Hot Seat

Tennessee's Loss to Vanderbilt Puts Butch Jones Firmly on the Hot Seat

Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

There aren’t any catchy phrases or slogans for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones to use to describe Saturday night, or the 2016 season, for that matter. 

The Volunteers’ hapless 45-34 loss to rival Vanderbilt on Saturday night was the low point of a disappointing season and the biggest debacle of Jones’ four-year regime. It positions UT in a bowl game nobody will care about and drops Jones squarely in boiling water.

The only spin you hear from Nashville will be the sound of a Vols season that was already teetering on the brink swirling down the drain. The biggest question now is will Jones go with it?

Should Butch Jones be the head coach of Tennessee in 2017?

Submit Vote vote to see results

    Should Butch Jones be the head coach of Tennessee in 2017?

  • Yes

  • No


An emotional, frustrated fanbase will scream “Yes!” in colorful, 140-character messages over the course of the next few months, and while it may be a trigger-finger reaction, the anger has plenty of merit.

This may not be the end, but it could be the beginning of it.

The Chattanooga Times Free-Press‘ Patrick Brown pointed out this loss feels somewhat like Derek Dooley’s penultimate season in Knoxville following the Kentucky loss:

Jones may not be fired after blowing the game against the Commodores, but he has nothing on which to boast on his resume for the year. And where there’s little progress, there’s less hope.

Had UT won, he would have promoted the “continual improvement” angle after going 9-3, despite the failure of not representing the weak East in the SEC Championship Game. Now, he can’t. With opportunity staring the Vols squarely in the face again, they blew it.


With Florida losing to Florida State and expected to be heavy underdogs against Alabama in next week’s SEC Championship Game, the Vols had a golden opportunity to earn a Sugar Bowl invitation with a win over Vanderbilt.

They squandered the chance away with the same porous defense and undisciplined, mistake-prone offense that has plagued this season. Forget progress. If anything, because of all the mistakes and disappointing, late-season losses, UT is worse than it was in 2015.

The spiral wasn’t lost on Times Free-Press sports editor Stephen Hargis, who tweeted that there’s only one area to lay the blame for the outcome of this season:

Failing in the face of such high expectations could wind up being the downfall of the Jones regime. It’s the second such time UT choked with everything going its way. All the Vols needed to do to seize the division was win out against South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Bookend road losses proved this team wasn’t up to that challenge. Now, let the angst ensue.

A hungry fanbase’s well-founded frustrations boiled over Saturday, and while administrators can’t make emotional decisions with millions of dollars, you’ve got to wonder just how high the Vols’ ceiling is under this coaching staff. 

With Tennessee hiring a new chancellor this week and conducting a search for an athletic director as we speak, change is churning in Knoxville. Jones’ protective shield of former athletic director Dave Hart won’t be around much longer, so the grumbles of the current state of the program will be heard loud and clear.

SEC athletic directors are judged by the health of their football programs, and whoever takes the helm in Knoxville will likely have a short leash for Jones if his program continues to muddle through mediocrity. ADs often want to roll with their guy in the high-stakes world of SEC football.

That doesn’t bode well for Jones’ future.

After a prolonged honeymoon showered with love for the recruiting classes Jones brought in and the way he rebuilt the program after the failed tenures of Lane Kiffin and Dooley, the Vols believed this was the year to return to the national conversation.

Instead, they were a mere divisional footnote.

Throw in the midseason departures of running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Preston Williams and the perception around the program is at an ebb as well.

Blowing a 14-point lead against Vanderbilt certainly exacerbates things, and it came in ugly fashion, too, with failures all over the field.

On 4th-and-4 and needing a first down to keep any hopes alive of winning the game, quarterback Joshua Dobbs threw a one-yard pass to Alvin Kamara, who stepped out of bounds two yards shy of the first-down marker. 

Down by 11 points, it was a puzzling decision not to kick the field goal in the first place. It was one of many poor coaching moves Jones has made with a wealth of talent over the past two years, and it’s the latest one that will be dissected under the microscope.

Defensively, the Vols were embarrassingly bad again against VU. The Commodores did what they wanted, as the Vols allowed the most points to Vanderbilt since 1923.

That side of the ball has been decimated with injuries, but what we’ve seen the past three weekends is still inexcusable. The Vols have allowed 1,985 total yards and 118 points in that span.

Entering the game, the Vols were 97th in total defense and undoubtedly tumbled after the gnashing in Nashville.

Jones parted ways with successful defensive coordinator in John Jancek to spend $1 million on former Penn State coordinator Bob Shoop, and while the move was universally lauded, the marriage has fallen flat thus far. He was hired to win championships, and there will be none of those this year.

The Vols may be “champions of life,” as Jones said this week, much to the chagrin of UT fans, words that became a laughingstock around social media. But after failing to improve in 2016 with so much talent returning, being champions on the field seems like a long shot under this regime.

At the very least, Jones must consider wholesale coaching changes. If Shoop hangs around, he needs to bring in some of the assistants he needs to make this defense work, because something was broken this year.

Offensively, it’s clear there at least needs to be another line coach, and Tennessee must make a home run hire in strength and conditioning, as that was a glaring weakness all season with the injuries and on-field play.

Everywhere can improve, and the self-evaluation this staff does in the offseason needs to conclude with some major changes, whether it goes all the way to the top or not.

That’s where the Vols sit right now, weighing which disappointment is the largest in a season full of them. This was supposed to be such an exciting season on Rocky Top, and instead, it’s ended with so many questions. 

With players such as Dobbs, Cameron Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Derek Barnett and likely Alvin Kamara leaving after this season, how can the Vols be better next year than they were in 2016? When signature wins come in the same package as inexplicable losses, how can you defend the coaches?

Jones was a virtual no-name when he came to Knoxville four years ago, and he breathed life into a stagnant program, rebuilding it by signing top recruits and singing catchy slogans.

The time for frilly phrases is over. Tennessee came to the cusp of college football’s Promised Land with all the hype and hope this season. But the bitter end of a bitter year proves there are major doubts that Jones can carry the Vols into it.

Quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics obtained from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.