Column: It's critical for Tennessee's relevance to finish the season strong
It’s easy to make too much out of three hours of football on an SEC Saturday, on good days or bad. Just be witness to all the “Fire Malzahn” and “Fire Richt” talk, and know that it all ranges from “very-silly” to “a-little-bit-silly.”
And then there’s Tennessee’s impressive 52-21 victory over Kentucky in Lexington. Taken on its own, in that little three-hour window, it doesn’t really mean all that much. Let’s be serious here, Tennessee always beats Kentucky, 30 of 31 games being close enough to perfect in most books.
It’s not the snapshot that matters. It’s the step in the right direction for conference and national relevance that’s important. It’s all about the big picture.
The Vols have had their chances to join in the national discussion this year, the first such opportunity in the Butch Jones era. But then they shot themselves in the foot against Oklahoma, and then Florida and then Arkansas and then Alabama, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each of those games. They’ve shot themselves in the foot so much this year they can’t even take ‘Ol Smokey for a walk anymore.
And then the homestretch arrives. Saturday night was Step One in a six-act play for Jones and the Vols. They will be favored in all five of their final regular season games. They dispatched UK, and now need to do the same with South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt. They need to finish the season 8-4 and then win a quality bowl game – say over Michigan or Michigan State in the Outback Bowl? – to then consider this season a success, despite all that early-season heartache.
And why? Because it’s not really all about those three hours a Saturday now. It’s about turning around the perception of the program and making the Tennessee Volunteers a program worth paying attention to again.
What a long winning streak and big bowl win would do is stop – or at the least very much slow down – all the “Fire Butch Jones” chatter. To me, that’s silly anyway. The bad four-quarter stumbles notwithstanding, Jones has that program heading in the right direction and he’s a much better fit than Lane Kiffin or Derek Dooley ever were. Some stability at UT will be good.
Running the table also puts Tennessee back in a good light when it comes to this all-critical recruiting season. All those near-misses on five-star recruits might start to change if the UT perception changes. Bringing in a class that’s another step up from the last few years would be huge. The talent level in Knoxville keeps getting better, and a big infusion of talent might make a world of difference in 2016 and beyond, especially if they can learn to finish games in this final run-out of the season.
There’s also this. With the exception of Florida, which has bounced back quickly under first-year coach Jim McElwain and seems certain to be back for good, the SEC East is a mess right now. The West if far better, but that’s not telling you anything new.
Missouri, the two-time defending champs in the East, has fallen off the map swiftly. There are huge problems at Georgia, and they may end up costing Mark Richt his job. South Carolina needs a new coach and the cupboard is pretty bare of talent. Vanderbilt has a long way to go. Kentucky, for all its talk of becoming relevant this year, has proven they aren’t anywhere near ready to contend yet.
So for the next few years, that leaves us with Tennessee as the most reasonable challenger to Florida. Top to bottom, there’s not much difference in the talent level now and another year of recruiting battles that fall the right way could narrow – or change completely – the perception of who’s better.
The Volunteers played in the SEC Championship Game five times between 1997 and 2007, but they haven’t been there since. Who knows, maybe they’re just a year away from being back there to that level.
Finishing this season with a flourish is the key to all of that future greatness. So we won’t overstate what that three hours in Lexington really meant, but we will surely acknowledge that it was a big first step in an important stretch run.
Finish the deal, and the future is going to look very bright.
But first, finish the deal.