Four games into his fifth year at Tennessee, Butch Jones has spent much of his time in Knoxville on the defensive, as his team has either underperformed or displayed frustrating inconsistency.
This week was no different; Tennessee entered 3–1, yet Jones began his week with a baffling rant at the media members who cover the Vols, implying that reporters are supposed to make Tennessee look good and even getting a “fake news” dig in. When he went on the radio later in the week, he defended his words by saying that the past two seasons in Knoxville (both 9–4 finishes) were some of the best in the past two decades of Vols football—a period that included a national championship, a quarterback named Peyton Manning and five years with double-digit win totals.
But Jones’s worst defense of his job came Saturday, in a 41–0 home loss to No. 7 Georgia. The Volunteers looked overwhelmed from the opening kickoff, and though the Bulldogs may well be the second-best team in the SEC, Tennessee turned in the performance of a team in need of a major change. The numbers—142 yards of total offense, seven first downs, four turnovers and 378 yards allowed—are bad enough, but even they don’t convey how overmatched Tennessee looked.
On offense, the Vols have struggled to find their man at quarterback this season. Quinten Dormady got the start Saturday and finished 5 of 16 for 64 yards and two interceptions. I’ll do the math for you: He completed just 31.3% of his passes. Jarrett Guarantano came in to relieve him and wasn’t much better—though he completed six of his seven pass attempts, he netted just 16 yards. And with such inaction and inaccuracy in the passing game, Tennessee was unable to get John Kelly and the rest of its running game going, finishing with just 62 yards and averaging a meager 2.1 yards per rush.
Saturday marked the first time Tennessee has been shut out at home by Georgia since 1923, and—to use Jones’s reference point from earlier in the week—the game was indisputably the Vols’ worst home performance of the past 20 years. Going forward, Tennessee needs to figure out a solution at quarterback, but the bigger question is whether Jones will be the coach making that decision. During his tenure in Knoxville, the Volunteers have never been able to push past the middle of the pack in the SEC, and they have looked frustratingly inept against lesser opponents like UMass (which they scratched out a 17–13 win against last week) and Appalachian State (which pushed Tennessee to overtime in Week 1 of the 2016 season). In the past, Jones’s teams have been able to rebound from head-scratching performances with dominant wins or even surprising upsets; a year ago, Tennessee beat a very good Virginia Tech team in Week 2. This time around, though, the rebound wasn’t there. Tennessee doesn’t look like it belongs anywhere near the top of the SEC.
Going into their bye week, the Vols have plenty to consider. With games against South Carolina, Missouri, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt remaining, there are certainly wins left on Tennessee’s schedule. But for a program that wants to be in the conversation for conference titles, let alone playoff berths, beating the conference’s bottom tier and making a middling bowl won’t be enough.