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Tennessee head coach Butch Jones reacts against Massachusetts during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (Clavin Mattheis/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
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In the long, occasionally unsatisfying history of University of Tennessee football, an odd dynamic has developed for its head coaches ever since the Southeastern Conference began divisional play in 1992.

That dynamic is this: Beware the South Carolina game, particularly in years the fan base already is restless.

Team 121 hosts the Gamecocks at high noon Saturday. With Volunteers coach Butch Jones already on a seat hot enough to melt steel, a loss could prove catastrophic to his future employment on Rocky Top. Even a win is unlikely to save him.

But a loss? Just ask former coaches and UT legends Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer about falling to South Carolina.

It was Majors who was rather coldly shown the door a few days after a 1992 loss to an unranked Gamecocks bunch in Columbia on Halloween afternoon.

Fast-forward to Nov. 1, 2008, and one can read of Tennessee meekly falling 27-6 in Columbia to a similarly unranked squad. Fulmer was told two days later he was done, although he finished out the season.

In both those instances there were three regular-season games left to play. In 1992 there would also be a Hall of Fame Bowl date with Boston College in Tampa, which the Vols won under Fulmer, who some believe helped hasten his boss's exit.

Then, of course, Fulmer's career ended 16 seasons later. Unlike the 1992 season, however — when the Vols won out — UT lost to Wyoming five days after Fulmer's ouster was announced before rallying to knock off Vanderbilt and Kentucky to close out a 5-7 season.

To be fair, this year's South Carolina game arrives the week before an expected humiliation against Alabama, whereas Majors and Fulmer had their fateful losses to the Gamecocks after falling to Bama the game before.

Still, there are at least a couple of reasonable reasons to believe a loss this Saturday, especially a lopsided one, could encourage first-year athletic director John Currie to quickly end the suffering for his struggling coach, the coach's family and a fan base that long ago decided, for whatever reason, that they had no football Jones for Coach Cliche.

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The first reason is recruiting. Thanks to this year's early 72-hour signing period from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22, sticking with Jones until the final regular-season game against Vanderbilt on Nov. 25 could make it difficult to have a new coach in place in time to hold onto previous commitments and lock up other players.

No one knows yet what this early period will mean, but Currie surely would prefer to have someone new in charge by Nov. 26 or 27 if he indeed jettisons Jones. And to do that with any sense of decency would require him to fire Jones soon enough to somewhat openly begin the recruiting process for a new coach.

And while many media types and fans might cringe at this, don't be surprised if Monday Night Football color guy Jon Gruden again surfaces as a favorite.

Yes, he appeared to stiff UT at the last minute when Jones was hired, and it would seem that he's got a pretty fair gig with MNF and ESPN.

But ESPN is also having some financial troubles, TV ratings are flat at best and Gruden, for all his charm and knowledge, reportedly is costing the cable giant more than $6 million a season. If he can keep making that salary working half as hard as he would as the boss of the Vols, it would seem ridiculous for him to take the coaching job.

However, should Gruden decide that his ESPN gig is suddenly unstable, why not consider a return to Knoxville, where he began his college coaching as a grad assistant to Majors?

But let's say it's not Gruden. Both former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and ex-Oregon and NFL coach Chip Kelly are theoretically available. Hesitate and a chance to get them might be lost.

And while Jones probably doesn't deserve to fired at this point — what, for instance, if he finishes 9-3, as is still possible? — rapidly declining attendance might all but seal his fate. Currie is first and foremost a businessman. Empty seats bother him, especially when they're strongly trending in the wrong direction.

If the real crowd on Saturday — not the announced crowd, but the turnstile count — falls below 80,000 or worse, Currie would have every reason to believe it won't get better. And that's probably millions of dollars in lost revenue on concessions alone for the rest of the year.

The Vols could easily beat South Carolina, of course. Though news that Vols quarterback Quinten Dormady was quitting after apparently being demoted in favor of Jarrett Guarantano was apparently premature — one wit on Twitter coldly but boldly dubbed him "Quitin' Dormady" — a fresh quarterback against the Gamecocks could signal a fresh start, much as Josh Dobbs turned around the program against South Carolina in 2014 in his coming-out party as a game-changer.

And achieving a victory Saturday, the Vols could just as easily go 9-3 as 7-5 or 6-6. And a 9-3 record would make firing Jones all but impossible, which, of course, might be another reason for Currie to can him sooner rather than later.

But let them lose listlessly in front of 20,000 empty seats and Jones could be gone before the road trip to Alabama next week. If you don't believe me, just ask Majors or Fulmer what happens to struggling UT coaches following a loss to the Gamecocks.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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