2016 State of the Union: Tennessee
Butch Jones and Tennessee have taken baby steps — also known as two-win improvements — over the past two years to get to where they are today. After going 5-7 in Jones’ first season in 2013, the Volunteers improved to 7-6 the following year before capping a 9-4 2015 campaign with a 45-6 victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
So is it fair to expect another two-win improvement this year? An 11-2 season would be nice and would probably result in at least an SEC East title and a berth in an upper-tier bowl, but while expectations are great, Jones and Tennessee have taken some notable off-the-field hits this offseason.
Eight plaintiffs are suing UT over its handling of assault complaints involving athletes, including one involving Vols defensive lineman Alexis Johnson, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment. In their filing, the plaintiffs have alleged that Jones told Tennessee wideout Drae Bowles that he “betrayed the team” for calling 911 to assist a woman who said she was sexually assaulted by two of Bowles’ teammates.
Not surprisingly, that allegation prompted the following response from Jones. “The assertion that I ever attempted to belittle or demean a young man for taking action to help another person is absolutely false,” Jones said in a statement issued through the university.
As if that weren’t enough, Tennessee has been dealing with sexual assault allegations against Vols great Peyton Manning from 20 years ago that resurfaced last month. MMQB staff writer Robert Klemko now reports that there was a fourth person who witnessed what allegedly happened between Manning and Dr. Jamie Naughright, an assistant trainer for Tennessee at the time, on Feb. 29, 1996.
It will take some time for Tennessee to recover from these serious allegations.
Spring practice begins Monday.
Let’s take a look at the State of the Union, taking into account the past three years and expectations for 2016.
SEC standing: Second in the East in 2015
Tennessee has gotten better in SEC play over the past three seasons, improving from 2-6 to 3-5 to 5-3 last season. They jumped from sixth in the East in 2013 to fourth in 2014 and second last year behind Florida.
A closer look at the Vols’ overall 2015 season indicates a disturbing trend. All four losses were by single digits.
But what’s more troubling is that in three of those defeats — to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas — the Volunteers held leads of at least 13 points before losing. Plus, despite the gradual improvement, they are just 3-13 against ranked opponents under Jones.
The Vols won their final six games in 2015 to finish with their best season since the Phil Fulmer era. But there is the sense that they can do more, and their 2016 schedule gives them an excellent opportunity to do just that.
The toughest matchup is a home game against Alabama on Oct. 15. But Tennessee could be favored in every other game, including its contest at Georgia on Oct. 1.
The more we think about it, the more reasonable a projected record of 11-2 in 2016 might be. The Vols could very well go 11-1 during the regular season and suffer a second loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game before winning whatever bowl they happen to reach.
Of course, Tennessee could also beat Bama – which has to replace Derrick Henry, Jacob Coker and Reggie Ragland – but we might be getting ahead of ourselves. Taking baby steps with expectations is probably the best – and most realistic — route to take.
SEC standing: Between 2nd and 7th in the conference
2016 rank: 7th in SEC
Jones has proven that he can recruit both in the SEC and nationally. Among his three classes with the Vols, two have been the best in the SEC East, including his 2015 group that was ranked 4th in the country, according to 247 Sports.
Tennessee’s 2016 class dipped to 14th nationally, seventh in the SEC and third in the East. But the Vols have so much talent returning this year that worrying about this class might be a little premature.
The returnees from Jones’ initial Tennessee class include major contributors Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd, Evan Berry, Josh Malone, Josh Smith and Ethan Wolf. In addition, Alvin Kamara and Darrin Kirkland Jr. are two of the standouts from Jones’ 2015 group.
With starting QB Joshua Dobbs entering his senior year, Jones has tried to address Tennessee’s future at the position. Rising sophomore Quinten Dormady, a former four-star prospect from Boerne, Texas, served as Dobbs’ backup last season, completing 13 of 22 passes for 209 yards and a TD while appearing in five games.
In addition to Dormady, here are the Vols’ other backup options for this season:
- Jarrett Guarantano, the No. 1-ranked dual-threat prospect of the 2016 class from Oradell, N.J.
- Sheriron Jones, a dual threat prospect of the 2015 class from Moreno Valley, Calif.
- Zac Jancek, a pro-style prospect of the 2015 class from Knoxville.
Recruiting in the SEC isn’t easy, especially with Nick Saban and Alabama landing the best class in the nation six years in a row. But Jones has quickly made a name for himself in that department.
If Tennessee’s talent materializes in 2016, the Volunteers could have their best season since 2001 when they finished 11-2 under Fulmer.
SEC standing: Average
Entering this year’s edition, seven Tennessee players have been selected in the NFL Draft over the past 3 years, but no Volunteer was chosen in 2015.
The biggest of those years was 2013, when four were taken, led by the lone first-rounder, Cordarrelle Patterson.
In 2014, Ja’Wuan Jones was the Vols’ only first-rounder.
Former Tennessee players also reached the NFL as undrafted free agents. QB Tyler Bray, who went undrafted in 2013, is Alex Smith’s backup with Kansas City, and the Chiefs recently extended his contract that could be worth up to $4.425 million.
Regarding other recent players developed at Tennessee, Curt Maggitt, LaDarrell McNeil, Kyler Kerbyson, Marquez North, Brian Randolph, Von Pearson, Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson and Pig Howard are eligible to be drafted aren’t expected to be, according to CBSSports.com. Coincidentally, the same website projects Dobbs to be a third-round pick next year.
So while it’s clear that Jones is a good recruiter, it’s also apparent that he has to improve how he prepares his recruits for the NFL.
SEC standing: One of the best in the conference and country
According to 247Sports.com, Tennessee’s football facilities are the fourth-best in the country, which isn’t surprising when you consider that UT has a 120-yard practice field along with the amenities of the 145,000 square-foot Anderson Training Center. The state-of-the-art facility, which provides video-delivery systems for players, includes a stellar training area along with ventilated lockers that have electrical outlets for cellphones, iPods and laptops.
Regarding Neyland Stadium, Tennessee’s athletic department announced last month that it had hired a major architectural firm to research its renovation.
“The master plan from 2004 included five phases,” Brett Huebner, the athletic department’s chief financial officer and senior associate athletic director told WBIR.com. “Three of those five phases were complete to the tune of around $140 million.”
The next phase will focus on modernizing the east and south sides of Neyland Stadium, according to WBIR. The goal is to complete work by this fall.
SEC standing: Behind multiple SEC peers
As a result of all the head-coaching turnover in the SEC East, Jones and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops are the division’s longest-tenured leaders. Derek Mason, who is entering his third year at Vanderbilt, is next.
The longer Jones stays at Tennessee, the further he puts the Derek Dooley and Lane Kiffin fiascos in the past. Jones’ 21-17 record with the Volunteers is not the most impressive mark in the world, but at the very least, he has won two straight bowl games while giving the program a sense of stability it hasn’t had since the days Fulmer roamed the sidelines.
Jones’ Vols obviously need to do a better job in one-score games and in matchups against ranked teams, and it appears he’ll be give ample time to do so.
According to The Tennessean, Tennessee rewarded Jones with a $500,000 raise, which increased his salary to $4.1 million on a contract that runs through 2020.
In 2016, Jones has several things in his favor, including numerous returning star players, a favorable schedule and a very winnable division. Factors such as injuries, players’ potential overconfidence and Tennessee’s lingering off-field issues could derail what might be the Volunteers’ best season in 15 years.
But more than three years after hiring Jones, Tennessee AD Dave Hart firmly believes he is still the man who will take the Vols – and their fans – where they want to go.
“I trust Butch Jones implicitly,” Hart told USA Today last month. “I know who he is. I know his work ethic. I know what he’s meant to this program and what he’s meant to this university. I know how he’s represented this university.”