- Tennessee's 0–6 start in the SEC this season spelled doom for Butch Jones. But which of those six losses did the most damage?
Head coach Butch Jones is out at Tennessee less than 24 hours after a 50–17 loss to Missouri in which the Volunteers were outgained by 374 yards and shut out in the second half, the final straw in a season filled with soul-crushing near-misses and stunning no-shows that drained Jones of all remaining goodwill in Knoxville.
Tennessee finally made the move to cut ties after settling into the SEC East basement at 4–6 overall and 0–6 in-conference, but as far back as early October there seemed to be no way back for Jones, who entered the season with one of the conference’s warmest seats and saw its temperature rise with each uniquely painful loss to a conference foe. But which was the worst? Let’s rank all six, from the most understandable results to the truly maddening defeats that have left the Vols wading into the coaching market.
6. Alabama 45, Tennessee 7 (Oct. 21): Yes, the Tide do this to everyone, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the Third Saturday in October for Volunteers fans. Linebacker Rashaan Gaulden’s double-birds to the assembled fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium after Tennessee scored its lone touchdown on a pick-six were both the highlight and lowlight of an afternoon when Alabama racked up nearly six times as many yards of offense as the Vols.
5. Georgia 41, Tennessee 0 (Sept. 30): This one hurt more at the time, before it became crystal clear that the Bulldogs were a national title contender. But the mass exodus from cavernous Neyland Stadium well before the final whistle told you all you needed to know about how few people were still in Jones’s camp after an all-systems failure on both sides of the ball.
4. South Carolina 15, Tennessee 9 (Oct. 14): An offensive touchdown drought that started in mid-September against UMass officially became A Thing when the Gamecocks’ defense produced a goal-line stand in the final 10 seconds, spoiling QB Jarrett Guarantano’s first start in place of Week 1 starter Quinten Dormady. Will Muschamp’s team became bowl eligible before the end of October, but this game was an unsightly slog that Tennessee had under control until late in the third quarter, when South Carolina put together a 12-play, 95-yard drive for the game-tying score.
3. Missouri 50, Tennessee 17 (Nov. 11): Blowouts to Alabama and Georgia are one thing; getting stomped by a Missouri team that itself sustained a 32-point loss to Purdue is another. Freshman quarterback Will McBride, making his first career start, threw a late-half touchdown pass to tie the score at 17, but the Vols turned right around and allowed a Tigers touchdown before the break and then fell apart from there. The optics of the final score had to have played a role in forcing Tennessee AD John Currie’s hand.
2. Florida 26, Tennessee 20 (Sept. 16): Feleipe Franks’s Hail Mary seemed to have an insurmountable clubhouse lead as the season’s biggest heartbreaker, from the improbable arc of the deep ball that fell into Tyrie Cleveland’s cradled arms behind Tennessee’s shorthanded secondary to the self-flagellation defensive coordinator Bob Shoop subjected himself to in front of the media the next week. The Volunteers had worked hard to erase a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes and forced the game to come down to a desperation heave; as for the outcome of that heave, at least unforgettable losses have become commonplace in this rivalry.
1. Kentucky 29, Tennessee 26 (Oct. 28): Tennessee outgained Kentucky 445–371, forced four Wildcats turnovers, held the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game (38:25 of game clock, to be exact) ... and lost, 29–26, to the only SEC East team the Volunteers had beaten in each of Jones’s first four years as head coach. Kentucky QB Stephen Johnson ran in the go-ahead touchdown from 11 yards out with 33 seconds left, and Guarantano’s last-gasp Hail Mary was hauled in three yards short of the goal line.
Don’t focus on the Hail Mary, as tempting as it is to turn that oh-so-close Jeff George reception into a metaphor for the season. Hail Marys are thrown short of the goal line all the time; Tennessee losses to Kentucky, on the other hand, only come about once a decade. The Volunteers had Mark Stoops & Co. dead to rights after scoring 13 unanswered points and forcing the Wildcats’ first four offensive drives of the second half to end in a pair of fumbles and a pair of punts. Then, from out of nowhere, Johnson led a 10-play, 72-yard drive for the game-winning touchdown—except if you’ve watched Tennessee this year, it wasn't from out of nowhere at all.