Tennessee’s football program has seen better days. The Vols are 3-3, haven’t scored a touchdown in 10 quarters, and play No. 1 Alabama (7-0) in Tuscaloosa this Saturday.
Do the Vols have any hope of keeping this game close?
“I would tell you that at the beginning of this year, you would look at this game and feel just as confident for Tennessee as you would at this very moment, which is very little confidence at all,” College Football Today host Adam Zucker said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “As the predicted margins go, it is the largest ever – and this is going to be the 100th meeting of Tennessee and Alabama. They’re five-touchdown underdogs.”
Indeed, Alabama is a 35-point favorite. Think that’s too high? The Tide beat Tennessee in Knoxville by 39 last year. The Vols finished 8-4 after a 5-0 start.
“That wasn’t the reason Tennessee didn’t win the East,” Zucker said of the Alabama loss. “Tennessee didn’t win the East last year because they lost games to South Carolina and Vanderbilt later on. Butch Jones isn’t going to get fired for losing to Alabama. It might look like a reaction to a blowout, if that’s what we’re going to get as many would expect. The reason is that more and more Tennessee fans just keep putting their heads in their hands at the ends of these games, whether it’s against Florida or just recently South Carolina. They’re 3-3. They could be 5-1.”
But they’re not. The defense failed Tennessee against Florida, and the offense has failed Tennessee in just about every game since.
“I thought this year with Josh Dobbs gone, Derek Barnett gone, a lot of guys who were injured last year now in the NFL, Alvin Kamara – I thought this was going to be a dip year for them, a rebuilding year,” Zucker said. “I think Tennessee fans get even more upset when Butch goes to the podium, and whether it’s the champions-of-life quote from last year when the SEC was out of reach or the fact that you can get leadership reps while not actually participating in a play during practice – things like that just drive the Tennessee fans nuts.”
Those comments – coupled with, you know, not winning – could cost Jones his job.
“Butch Jones may already be dead to rights, and this game could be where he’s pretty much just being told to walk the plank and they make the move after this game,” Zucker said. “Some people say, ‘Well, let him finish the year.’ They’ve also adjusted the signing period, and Butch is known for his recruiting. You’ve had three de-commitments recently, and the early signing period now in December means you’ve got to show the recruits what you’re going to do far more in advance than you used to. So there’s a trickle-down effect there as well.”
Despite the Vols’ struggles – they have just one 10-win season since 2004 and none since 2007 – Zucker believes Tennessee is still a good job.
“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a monster program with a monster fan base. Until this year, you wouldn’t even think of seeing an empty seat among the 102,000-plus at Neyland Stadium. So when you have the passion of the fans and you’re in the SEC-East – even though you have to face Alabama every year in the traditional crossover in that rivalry – it’s one of the top jobs in the country. And let me tell you: Butch Jones has done a much better job with it overall than his predecessors. Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, that didn’t go so well. They also ran Uncle Phil (Phillip Fulmer) out of town when things started to dip to .500 or below .500.
“So it’s a demanding job,” Zucker continued, “but it’s similar in a way with a Nebraska where you haven’t had true glory now in a couple of decades, but you have to kind of have a reality check as far as what are realistic expectations. Tennessee is a far more fertile recruiting ground. Nebraska still gets kids from all over the country to come there. But high school kids, they don’t have the memory that you and I have. These kids have grown up with Alabama being dominant, Clemson being dominant and on the rise and fun under Dabo, Urban Meyer has made Ohio State the destination again, Penn State as well – kind of the way Oregon was the hot ticket for a few years there. That’s why there’s impatience. You got to stay hot. You got to keep the momentum.”
Saturday’s kickoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. ET.