Here's how Butch Jones compares to previous Tennessee football coaches in their first seasons in Knoxville.
Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Record: 6-7 (3-5)
Bowl: Music City (lost to North Carolina)
Record: 7-6 (4-4)
Bowl: Chick-fil-A (lost to Virginia Tech)
Record: 10-2 (7-1)
Bowl: Citrus (lost to Penn State)
Record: 4-7 (1-5)
Record: 11-1 (4-1)
Bowl: Sugar (beat Air Force)
Record: 4-5-1 (1-5-1)
KNOXVILLE — It would be easy for the players, coaches, support staffers, administrators and fans in and around the Tennessee football program to look back on the season and wonder, "What if?"
After all, the Volunteers, under first-year coach Butch Jones, hired from Cincinnati one year ago today after a whirlwind search process, were a play here or there away from winning seven games and awaiting their destination for a bowl game.
Instead, following a 5-7 season, many are wondering what's ahead for Tennessee under Jones.
"I think we've got the right captain of the ship," departing senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said.
"Coach Jones is instilling in us that we're going to be competitors and we're going to compete no matter what the circumstance is."
Jones, a self-proclaimed impatient person and competitive coach, will be disappointed that his first campaign ended in the Vols' fourth consecutive losing season, but he'll be encouraged by the groundwork laid this season and touted recruiting class he and his coaching staff have assembled as he continues trying to get the Vols back on track.
Tennessee faced seven ranked teams in an eight-game stretch, the first time that's happened in college football in 20 years. Short on speed and depth defensively and replacing a large chunk of departed offensive production, the Vols were blown out by the best teams they faced, losing to Oregon by 45, Alabama by 35, Missouri by 28 and Auburn by 32.
After a ridiculous left-handed catch by well-covered freshman receiver Marquez North set up the Vols' winning field goal against South Carolina, though, Tennessee sat 4-3 coming off the program's first win against a ranked team since 2009.
With starting quarterback Justin Worley sidelined by injury, Tennessee was down to freshman Josh Dobbs -- at one point the fourth-string quarterback who was headed toward a redshirt -- for the season's final month.
The season ultimately came down to two late-game drives, one by Georgia's Aaron Murray and the other by Vanderbilt.
The short-handed Bulldogs drove 75 yards and tied the game with five seconds left before winning the game in overtime after Pig Howard fumbled into the end zone as he reached for the pylon. The Commodores, aided by an overturned fourth-and-inches play, scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left after driving 92 yards in the game's final minutes.
"When the game's on the line, we've just got to make the plays," safety Brian Randolph said.
"That'll definitely be in our head in the offseason," he added, "while we're lifting and running and trying to get better for next season. We'll probably use that as motivation."
After the season-ending win at lowly Kentucky, Jones, whose original six-year deal worth $2.95 million per season runs through 2018, noted that the Vols were "two instant replays" from being 7-5.
That's true, but Tennessee also needed North's amazing catch to upset South Carolina and a late defensive stand -- something that eluded them in the losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt -- to survive a scare from South Alabama.
"You've got to learn how not to lose," Sapp said, "before you learn how to win."
Changing the mentality
That was one of the biggest challenges Jones faced when he took the Tennessee job: changing the mentality of a program that has lost more than it has won the past six seasons. The Vols had four losing seasons during that stretch, while Jones won or shared four conference titles in six seasons at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Tennessee is 7-25 in the SEC since 2010.
Regarding the goal of "changing the culture," as he puts it, Jones said he's seen "tremendous, tremendous strides" since he took over a year ago.
"I said in August, 'We need to get to a bowl game,' but success isn't totally measured in that," he said. "It's after year one, we have to make sure the standard, the foundation and everything is in place to continue to move forward. I do believe that that's in place.
"Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. I say it every week, but I see the progress, and sometimes it's not measured in wins, but I see it every day."
Under Jones, the Vols have stayed out of off-field trouble and dug themselves out of a potential bowl ban by raising the program's Academic Progress Rate score with a strong spring and summer academically. Jones and his staff were surprised and encouraged by how quickly the players embraced a new way of doing things.
"I feel way different than I have in the past," senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "Just culturewise, locker roomwise, walking around the complex, the vibe of the coaches and things like that. And this happened in this little bit of a period of time, this little time we had with them.
"I know the guys that are freshmen, sophomores and juniors now, they have that relationship built, they have that trust built and they can just go through the offseason with [strength] Coach [Dave] Lawson and have that trust and doing everything the right way and doing it the Coach Jones way. That's the way we're going to be successful."
Upgrading the roster
The second challenge Jones faced was upgrading the roster, and he and his coaching staff are well on their way to doing that. Tennessee has the nation's second-ranked class, according to multiple recruiting services, and have landed the majority of the top in-state prospects. More than a dozen players will arrive in January and get a head start on their college careers.
There's still work to be done on the class, particularly when it comes to making the numbers work, but Jones has recruited at a level that nobody outside of maybe him and his staff expected. The touted class has remained mostly intact through the blowouts and on-field disappointments, and Tennessee's commitments appear bonded by a singular belief in Jones and Tennessee's future.
"I'm not so much surprised, but it has made me happy," said Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College linebacker and Tennessee commitment Chris Weatherd said of the Vols' class.
"We've all communicated with each other and got a vibe about each other before we even put on a same jersey. It's a great thing. ... That's team, and that's unity."
In his second season, Jones will be dealing with a roster that's nearly 40 percent new, if you include the 30 players Tennessee will sign and the return of linebacker Curt Maggitt and offensive guard Marcus Jackson, two former starters that redshirted this season.
With Jones and his staff on the road recruiting and the returning players starting on the offseason workout program all this week, Tennessee quickly turned the page from one season to the next.
"He really gets it," one athletic department executive staff member said before the season. "I think Butch is playing offense all the time. He recognizes the challenges, but he chooses to play offense. I think that has rubbed off on our staff, it's rubbed off in terms of our morale in the building and obviously within the fan base."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...