KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Asked about trash talk from Florida's cornerbacks, some overt and some bizarrely metaphorical, Tennessee coach Butch Jones explained his team's bunker mentality insulated the Volunteers from such tomfoolery. "Any time I spend seeing what's out there is a waste of our time," Jones said Wednesday. "Really, it's insignificant." But moments later, Jones bragged about the attention lavished on Tennessee's program ahead of the most important game of his tenure so far.
"I have spoken with more national media this week than I have in a long time, and they understand how far this program has come in 3½ short years. They understand it, they get it," Jones said. "It's like the Wall Street Journal being here last week and wanting the model for building a football program, a company and an organization because of how far we have come in a short period of time. And it's not just the product on the field, it's off the field, it's academics, it's putting together an entire program."
It's appropriate that Jones would mention the Journal because Tennessee is exactly the kind of trend story that paper savors. Company hits hard times and then roars back under new, innovative CEO. Those stories are great. We love writing them, and you love reading them. They brim with the promise of brighter days. They spotlight new and creative ideas. There's only one problem. Those ideas don't always pan out.
In 1998, the Journal profiled Steve Jobs, who had just returned to Apple after years in exile. The story outlined all Jobs was doing to make Apple relevant again. As we know now, it worked. In the ensuing years, Apple changed the way most people compute, listen to music and communicate. In 2012, the Journal profiled Thorsten Heins, who had just taken over as the CEO at Research In Motion—better known as the company behind the Blackberry. Heins had a lot of ideas, too. None of them worked. His company continued losing market share to the company Jobs reinvigorated years earlier.
As the CEO of Tennessee Football Inc., Jones stands at a crossroads. As he has worked his way through the process of rebuilding the Volunteers from the wreckage of the Derek Dooley era, he has sold his program as a cutting-edge outfit built upon the bedrock principles of General Robert Neyland's game maxims. "Sleep coaches" make sure the Vols get enough rest so they can ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang tackle… for this is the winning edge. At the same time, Jones has stocked Tennessee's roster with some of the nation's most sought-after recruits. This has generated excitement among the stockholders, but as Jones's tenure grows longer, the focus has begun to shift from all the things he's doing to the things he hasn't done. Specifically, these two things.
- Win the SEC East.
- Beat Florida.
The Vols don't necessarily have to complete the second task to complete the first, but with an 11-game losing streak against the Gators that stretches through the tenures of four head coaches (Jones, Dooley, Lane Kiffin and Phillip Fulmer), the Florida game has come to represent a critical quarterly report for Tennessee Football Inc.
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The company's stock dove after the Vols gave up a Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown on fourth-and-14 with 1:26 remaining and then missed a field goal by inches in the closing seconds of a 28–27 loss last year in Gainesville. It cratered following a loss to Arkansas but then steadily rose as the Vols surged through the second half of the season and closed the year by whipping Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. It rose more during the off-season as rosters were studied and measured.
The next critical earnings report comes Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Win, and the Vols could be headed back to blue-chip status. Lose, and the stockholders will begin to dump their shares.
Jayson Swain, a former Tennessee receiver who now hosts a morning radio show in Knoxville, puts it another way. If the Vols win, he said, Knoxville will be "the happiest town in America." And if they lose? "You know that scene from Independence Day when the aliens came and destroyed everything?" Swain said. "It may feel like that."
Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is the new vice president the CEO hires a few years into his run to push the company across the goal line. Actually, in Shoop's case, it's to keep competing firms from crossing the goal line. And Shoop's defense has done a fine job of that so far. In nine trips to the red zone, Tennessee's opponents have scored only four touchdowns. That's one of those stats that matter to Shoop, who embraced analytics back when they were just called tendencies.
Another is average points per possession, which, given the speed at which offenses run today, is far more meaningful than scoring defense or yardage allowed. Last year at Penn State, Shoop's defense ranked No. 25 in the nation in points allowed per drive with 1.63. His Florida counterpart Geoff Collins ran a defense that ranked No. 12 (1.43), and the Gators might wind up being better this year.
Shoop's challenge Saturday is to stop Florida's offense without his best cornerback (Cam Sutton, ankle) or the linebacker who functions as the quarterback of his defense (Darren Kirkland Jr., ankle). Meanwhile, another excellent linebacker (Jalen Reeves-Maybin) will play with a bum shoulder and hope he doesn't aggravate the injury. Shoop, who ran the defense at Vanderbilt before going with James Franklin to Penn State, understands what is at stake in the minds of the shareholders. "I've been told on numerous occasions that my responsibility is to win this game," Shoop cracked.
That outside pressure has not changed the way Shoop prepares. After the Vols beat Ohio last week, he had dinner with his wife and then went about his usual routine for the week. "I hear a lot about it," he said. "Since I've been on the job, you can't turn on SEC Network without hearing 11 straight and all that stuff. But honestly, I haven't really thought much about it."
Shoop understands that thinking about it won't help. No one on Tennessee's roster or coaching staff can go back and stuff Tim Tebow on fourth-and-one in 2006. No one can keep Treon Harris from coming off the bench and leading the Gators to an ugly 10–9 win the last time the game was played in Knoxville. No one can cover Callaway on fourth-and-forever. Those games are done. All that matters is now.
Sutton can't play, so freshman Baylen Buchanan will have to fill his spot. As Vols defenders kept dropping during the Ohio game, Shoop felt like he was back in England, where he once played for a decidedly unorganized American football team. "It was almost like a semipro team on a Sunday," Shoop said of that experience and Saturday's experience. "CAN ANYBODY HERE PLAY CORNER?" But Shoop loved the fact that injured cornerback Justin Martin volunteered to dress out for the second half in case he was needed. Meanwhile, safety Micah Abernathy was on the sidelines studying cornerback assignments in case he was needed there.
Kirkland will miss a second consecutive game, so former walk-on Colton Jumper must put his teammates in the correct places and try to stuff Florida's stable of tailbacks. Shoop knew Jumper before he worked at Tennessee. When Shoop coached at Vandy, Commodores distance runner Hannah Jumper used to bring by film of all her little brother's games so that Shoop might recruit Colton to play at Vandy. Not good enough, Shoop decreed. But he recommended Jumper to his former employer, William and Mary. Jumper wound up choosing the Naval Academy, but the Navy disqualified him because of a kidney condition. So he walked on at Tennessee. Last year, Shoop flipped on the TV after coaching a Penn State game and saw Jumper playing for the Vols against Oklahoma. "Is that Colton Jumper?" Shoop thought to himself. Now Jumper will be a critical cog in a defense that must find a way to harass a new Florida quarterback.
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With Luke Del Rio apparently out with a knee injury, Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby likely will start for the Gators. Shoop knows Appleby, too. He tried to recruit him to Vandy. Jones, meanwhile, tried to recruit Appleby to Cincinnati. Appleby wound up playing for Shoop's brother John, who ran Purdue's offense from 2013–15.
What does all this familiarity mean? Probably not much, since none of Tennessee's coaches have seen Appleby running Florida's offense. They'll simply send Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen after him and hope he gets sacked or panics and throws interceptions. Vereen, from Winter Garden, Fla., has dated a Florida student for several years. "[Communication] is going to be very limited in the sense, but it's going to be very nice," Vereen told the Knoxville News-Sentinel this week.
Tennessee players know all about the streak. But like their coaches, they can't replay those games. They can only try to win this one. They've heard the trash talk, too. They have not responded. "We all know what they have to say," defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie said. "Come 3:30 on Saturday, it's just about that action and that's it."
By about 7 p.m. eastern Saturday, there will be significant action in the market for shares of Tennessee Football Inc. Will its CEO impress the shareholders with the company's most recent balance sheet? Or will the Butch Jones Bubble burst?