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Front Page - Friday, December 2, 2016

Jones will get a year to prove he’s not all talk

It’s going to be a long bowl season for Tennessee’s football team and its fans.

The Vols find out their bowl destination soon after Saturday’s SEC championship game (4 EST, CBS) between Florida and Alabama in Atlanta.

Tennessee (8-4, 4-4 SEC) was supposed to be playing in Atlanta. Not Florida.

The Vols were preseason favorites to win the SEC East Division. Not only did they not win the division title, they didn’t win the state title.

Vanderbilt (6-6, 3-5) beat UT 45-34 last Saturday night in Nashville. It was the worst loss in Butch Jones’ four-year tenure as coach, worse than the 24-21 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 29, which gave Florida control of the SEC East. And it was worse than the 14-10 loss to Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium in Jones’ first season at Tennessee, 2013.

So much more was on the line in Nashville.

Tennessee, favored by a touchdown, had a chance for a Sugar Bowl bid with a win over Vanderbilt, which was playing to improve its bowl standing.

Thanks to that loss, the Vols are headed to a mediocre bowl, and Jones enters his fifth season at Tennessee on the hot seat. So does his coaching staff – those who are still there.

Tennessee will have a new athletic director when Dave Hart officially retires June 30, 2017. Jones and his assistants will be under close scrutiny by the new AD.

After last season, Jones hired a new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop from Penn State, to upgrade Tennessee’s defense. It hasn’t worked.

Injuries are no excuse for how bad Shoop’s defense was this year. In the last three games, UT gave up 608 total yards offense to Vandy, 740 to Missouri and 635 to Kentucky.

Don’t look for Shoop to be gone in 2017, though. He signed a three-year contract for $1.15 million a year. I don’t see Tennessee getting rid of Shoop until the new AD makes a decision about Jones after the 2017 season.

Jones, meanwhile, got a contract extension in December of 2015 for a $4.1 million annual salary through 2020. If Jones gets fired without cause, UT would owe him $2.5 million for each year left on his deal.

As much as some fans won’t like it, Jones probably will be coaching the Vols next season.

UT football made steady progress in Jones’ first three seasons. It went 5-7 in 2013 with no bowl, 7-6 the next year with a win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Last year, the Vols finished 9-4 after a win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, and they entered the 2016 with greater aspirations. At best, now the Vols can match 9-4 with a bowl win.

Lots of people thought Tennessee would go 10-2 and win the SEC East this year. I did. The Vols had the best team in a weak East division for the second consecutive year.

Even after losses to Texas A&M and Alabama, the Vols were on track to win the division, due to wins over Florida and Georgia. Then came the loss to South Carolina, a 13-point underdog.

Florida, despite a rash of injuries like the Vols had, clinched the East with a 16-10 win at LSU on Nov. 19. Two days later, Jones praised his players at his weekly press conference for winning “the championship of life,” even though they didn’t win the East.

National media are still having fun with that line after the loss at Vanderbilt.

UT fans aren’t laughing.

The Vols’ SEC record is worse than last year’s 5-3.

Vanderbilt has beaten Tennessee three of the past five seasons. That hasn’t happened since the 1920s before Robert R. Neyland was hired to beat Vanderbilt.

In four years, Jones is 14-18 in SEC games, 14-10 against the East and 0-8 against the West. He is 2-2 against Vanderbilt, 0-4 against Alabama, 1-3 against Florida, and 2-2 against Georgia.

Jones spent the first week of this bowl season getting roasted on sports talk radio and message boards amid speculation about his future.

UT’s bowl destination was a sub-plot to Jones and losing to Vanderbilt. It left the Vols likely headed to the Dec. 29 Belk Bowl in Charlotte, the Dec. 30 Liberty Bowl in Memphis, or the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl in Nashville.

What a bummer for UT and its fans. Much more was expected than 8-4 and one of those bowls.

Here are my five highs and five lows for the 2016 season (in chronological order).

5 highs

UT 45, Va. Tech 24

Who wasn’t fired up for the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol?

The track at Bristol Motor Speedway was filled with 156,990 fans, the largest crowd to ever watch a college football game. Tennessee escaped the season opener with a 20-13 overtime win against Appalachian State and its integrity intact (it needed a fumble recovery in the end zone by Jalen Hurd to win the game).

Yet a bothersome trend started as the No. 17 Vols fell behind unranked Virginia Tech 14-0 in the first quarter. The Hokies outgained UT 204 yards to 28 yards and had nine first downs to the Vols’ one at the start of the second quarter.

UT got plenty of help in its comeback. The Vols’ Micah Abernathy recovered a fumble – the first of his UT-record three fumbles recovered for the game – and UT’s Joshua Dobbs threw a 5-yard touchdown pass on the next play for the first touchdown.

Virginia Tech fumbled five times and lost all five to the Vols, who recovered both of their fumbles.

Dobbs ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 91 yards and three touchdowns. Hurd rushed for 99 yards on 22 carries and appeared on his way to breaking Tennessee’s career rushing record held by Travis Henry (1997-2000).

No. 14 UT 38,

No. 19 Florida 28

After a 28-19 home win against Ohio, the Vols prepared for what many called Jone’s biggest game to date at UT.

Tennessee’s 11-game losing streak to Florida looked like it would stretch to 12 in the first half. The Gators led 21-0 early in the second quarter, and 21-3 at the half.

There were fans booing when Jones and the Vols headed to the Neyland Stadium locker room, and why not? UT was favored by at least a touchdown, the third straight year it was favored to beat the Gators. It had to win this game. So did Jones.

Boos turned to cheers in the second half. UT scored 35 consecutive points before the Gators got a late touchdown.

Dobbs threw for 319 yards and four touchdowns on 16-of-32 passing with two interceptions, and ran for 80 yards and a touchdown. Hurd led the Vols in rushing with 95 yards on 26 carries.

Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) entered the Oct. 1 game at Georgia still favored to win the SEC East for the first time since 2007.

No. 11 UT 34, Georgia 31

It was a day of high drama for the No. 11 Vols, who hadn’t won in Athens since 2006.

UT (5-0, 2-0 SEC) trailed 17-0 in the second quarter after Hurd – apparently headed for a touchdown on a 23-yard pass play – was hit from behind and lost a fumble for a Georgia touchdown.

The Vols got within three on Dobbs’ 4-yard run and Hurd’s 19-yard pass for a touchdown from Dobbs early in the third quarter, and took a 28-24 lead on Corey Vereen’s fumble recovery, caused by Derek Barnett, for a touchdown.

Georgia went ahead 31-28 with 10 seconds left, and was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct to be assessed on the kickoff.

Evan Berry returned a short kick 20 yards, and Georgia was penalized 5 more yards for an offside call. UT had one more play from the 43-yard line with 5 seconds left.

Dobbs threw a Hail Mary pass that was caught by Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro for the winning touchdown.

Dobbs threw for 230 yards and three touchdowns, and Alvin Kamara led the Vols’ rushing with 62 yards on 16 carries.

Tennessee was in control of the East race – no matter the outcome of its next two games against the West Division’s Texas A&M and Alabama.

UT 55, Tenn. Tech 0

OK. It’s a stretch to call beating Tennessee Tech a highlight, but at this stage of the season, UT (6-3, 2-3) still had a chance to win the SEC East, thanks to Florida’s 31-10 loss at Arkansas the same day the Vols were beating Tech.

Despite consecutive losses to Texas A&M, Alabama, and South Carolina, the Vols could still win the East by winning its last three games against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt, combined with Florida losing to either South Carolina or LSU.

Tennessee was favored in its last three games, and Florida had to travel to LSU on Nov. 19.

Dobbs completed 12 of 13 passes for 183 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee Tech before backup Quinten Dormady took over.

By the second half, UT’s starters were on the bench, getting ready for the next Saturday’s home game against Kentucky.

Nov. 12: UT 49, Kentucky 36

Does beating Kentucky for the umpteenth time qualify for a top five highlight?

This season it does.

Dobbs had a huge game, accounting for 370 yards and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing), and the Vols rushed for 376 yards.

Dobbs ran for 147 yards and averaged 10.5 yards per carry. Kamara had 128 rushing yards and averaged 12.8 per carry, and John Kelly gained 94 yards with a 5.9-yard average.

Tennessee beat Kentucky for the 31st time in 32 games, but it didn’t get any help from South Carolina.

Florida beat the Gamecocks 20-7 and needed only a win the next Saturday at LSU to clinch the SEC East.

5 lows

Texas A&M 45,

UT 38, double OT

Forget the late rally. This makes the list because No. 9 Tennessee botched its chances of winning the game.

The Vols fumbled six times (lost five), Dobbs was intercepted twice, and UT was penalized 12 times for 84 yards, which kept them atop the SEC among most penalized teams.

Hurd didn’t make the trip to play No. 8 Texas A&M, and questions began swirling as to why.

With Hurd out, Kamara set UT’s single-game record for all-purpose yards (312) previously held by Chuck Webb (294 yards in 1998). Kamara rushed for 127 yards and two touchdowns, caught eight passes for 161 yards and a touchdown, and had 24 return yards.

However, Kamara lost a fumble at the Aggies’ 7-yard line after a 53-yard pass play from Dobbs.

Tennessee scored three touchdowns in the last eight minutes of regulation, but the game ended when Dobbs’ pass was intercepted in the second overtime. The loss snapped UT’s 11-game winning streak dating back to the 2015 season.

Alabama 49, UT 10

This was a whipping.

No. 1 Alabama outgained No. 9 Tennessee 594 yards to 161 yards and rolled up 28 first downs to the Vols’ 11.

Kamara scored UT’s only touchdown on a 7-yard run in the second quarter, but suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the next two games against South Carolina and Tennessee Tech.

Hurd was back for Alabama, but gained only 28 yards on 13 carries.

Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts rushed for 132 yards and three touchdowns and averaged 11 yards per carry. Bo Scarbrough ran for 109 yards and a touchdown and averaged 21.8 yards per carry. The Tide averaged 7.8 yards per play and UT 2.6 yards per play.

Tennessee was without injured starting defenders Cameron Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Malik Foreman, Cortez McDowell, and offensive starters Jashon Robertson and Dylan Weisman. Also, Brett Kendrick, Abernathy, and Kahlil McKenzie left during the Alabama game due to injuries and didn’t return.

Still, UT was still in control of its East destiny with an open date before travelling to play South Carolina.

S. Carolina 24, UT 21

Talk about a tough weekend.

No. 18 Tennessee fell out of the driver’s seat for the East title with the loss to the Gamecocks. Many called it the worst loss in Jones’ tenure (to date) considering all at stake.

Dobbs had a bad day – 12 of 26 passing with two interceptions and one TD – and Jones was hoping for another miracle finish like Georgia when he sent Aaron Medley onto the field for the potential 58-yard tying field goal at game’s end. It was way short.

Hurd rushed for 16 yards and a touchdown in the first half, and didn’t play the second half. After his 1-yard TD run in the first quarter, Hurd got a frosty reception from teammates when he returned to the sideline.

In his Monday press conference, Jones announced Hurd, a prized recruit of the 2014 class and a former Hendersonville Beech High star, was transferring to become a wide receiver or tight end.

Jones also said Hurd didn’t play the second half against South Carolina because he was hurt, but there was speculation on message boards and talk radio Hurd refused to re-enter the game.

It was also reported Hurd told teammates after Sunday’s team meeting he was leaving the team, but didn’t tell Jones until Monday morning.

After a bad weekend, Jones and the Vols looked forward to a home game against FCS opponent Tennessee Tech.

UT 63, Missouri 37

Dobbs led a cluster of Tennessee fans in celebration after the win over Missouri, but most of the UT faithful had long left the Neyland Stadium.

During the first half of the win, Florida finished off LSU 16-10 and clinched the SEC East title.

There was lots of scoreboard watching. With hopes of an East title gone, UT fans started heading for the exits at halftime. By late in the game, the stadium was almost empty.

Dobbs had his third big game in a row, throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for a career-high 190 yards and two touchdowns.

However, the Vols’ defense gave up 420 rushing yards, 320 passing yards, and 41 first downs.

Shoops’ defense was drawing comparisons to the 2012 defense under defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and head coach Derek Dooley.

Vanderbilt 45, UT 34

No, that wasn’t Tom Brady. No, that wasn’t Aaron Rodgers. Not even Jordan Rodgers.

But Tennessee’s defense made Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur look like an NFL quarterback last Saturday night in Nashville.

Shurmur completed 21 of 34 passes for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns, and the Commodores rushed for 192 yards. Vanderbilt’s 45 points was the most it has scored against an SEC opponent since 1971.

The outcome seemed implausible when the Vols scored on their first possession (Kamara’s 14-yard run) and led 31-24 at halftime after Dobbs’ 27-yard touchdown pass to Josh Malone.

UT’s offense went silent the rest of the game – it was outscored 21-3 in the second half – and three mistakes by Jones, Dobbs, and kicker Aaron Medley were glaring.

Dobbs, who completed 31 of 34 passes for 340 yards, lost a fumble at UT’s 49-yard line that led to a Vanderbilt touchdown and 38-34 lead early in the fourth quarter. Medley missed a 37-yard field goal attempt off the upright on UT’s next possession.

And Jones made a questionable call with the Vols trailing 45-34 on their last possession.

UT faced fourth-and-4 at Vanderbilt’s 13. Instead of kicking the field goal and going for an on-side kick, Jones went for the first down. Kamara caught a short pass from Dobbs and gained one yard before running out of bounds. Vanderbilt got possession and ran out the clock.

Tennessee’s Sugar Bowl hopes were gone, along with the SEC East title.

That makes for a long bowl season.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.