On Butch Jones‘ first day as Tennessee‘s new football coach, the new hire said “I know we’ve built an instant gratification society. Everybody wants everything at once. I will tell you this, we’re going to [build a championship program] inch by inch, inches make the champion. We’re going to go to work. I don’t know how long it will take, but you’re going to be proud of this football team, you’re going to be proud of this football program.” Jones admitted he didn’t know how long it would take standing at that podium in December of 2012. He knows now. Tennessee’s rebuilding is over, and the time to win is now.
The Vols have talent. Through relentless recruiting Jones and his staff have amassed a team that has the talent to win any game. They have expectations, too. The Vols hype machine is in overdrive, solid favorites to win the SEC East and picked by some to challenge Alabama for the SEC title and compete for a spot in the College Football Playoffs. And they have experience. Seventeen starters return for the Orange and White, as well as 57 lettermen from a 2015 squad that won nine games and finished the campaign with an impressive Outback Bowl win. It seems as though the only thing Tennessee doesn’t have is time. The Tennessee faithful have waited patiently through the last three years of rebuilding. They’ve weathered a loss to Vanderbilt in 2013, an up-and-down campaign in 2014, and the now famous four fourth-quarter blown leads in 2015. Through it all the losing streak to Florida has continued. The story of this season for the Vols is clear: the time to win is now.
Tennessee Volunteers 2016 Schedule Analysis: Games 1-6
The path to redemption is laid out in the schedule. That’s another thing that’s on Tennessee’s side. The Vols play nine of their twelve games in the state of Tennessee. They get Florida and Alabama at home. They get three games to prepare for Florida — the conference opener and the most important game of the season. Two of those three, Appalachian State and Virginia Tech, will test Tennessee but shouldn’t threaten a loss. They even get a timely bye weekend before heading into a home stretch against five teams with a combined 14 FBS wins in 2015.
Game 1: Appalachian State vs. Tennessee, September 1st (Thursday)
Appalachian State might be one of the few teams in the nation that returns as much experience as Tennessee. The Mountaineers are an explosive offense and a very quality Group-of-Five conference team. They are coming off an 11-win season and a bowl win in the Camelia Bowl. You can expect that Jones and the coaching staff have focused on the threat that Appalachian State represents to this team, so the real test in this game will be whether the Vols come out of the gate focused, similar to their opening weekend throttling of Utah State and Chuckie Keeton two years ago. While Appalachian State is a good team, their lackluster performance against Clemson last year and Tennessee’s athleticism on defense indicate a good opening night in Knoxville. Tennessee 37, Appalachian State 17
A Look At Tennessee’s First Opponent, Appalachian State
Game 2: Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee (Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol, Tennessee), September 10th
The best part of playing a Thursday opener is the extra two days of adjustment and preparation for your next game. That will be crucial for the Vols as they travel to what will most certainly be a circus to take part in the “Battle at Bristol”, the world’s biggest college football game. Over 160,000 spectators are expected to watch this game live. Virginia Tech will represent the second straight week of tough competition. The Hokies only won seven games last season, but two of those losses were to bowl teams in overtime. They also return 15 players, albeit with a new coaching staff. With FCS school Liberty as their opening week match-up, expect a lot of Tennessee prep in the Hokies camp. This one might be closer than most expect, but Tennessee closes it out and makes it through the first real test unscathed. Tennessee 30, Virginia Tech 20
“Battle At Bristol” Promotional Video
Game 3: Ohio at Tennessee, September 17th
Sandwiched in between the Circus at the Coliseum and the Must-Win Game are the Ohio Bobcats. This is not the team you want to play in this situation. They have a seasoned, Championship-winning coach in Frank Solich, return over half of their starters, and were an 8-win team last season. Expect the noise around the program to center on the impending match-up with Florida, so, again, Tennessee’s main task will be focusing on Ohio. Ohio will bring in a new starter at Quarterback and a weak running game, so expect Tennessee’s secondary to wake up early and make some big plays. Special teams will set the tone for this game, as the Vols finally break some big plays in the third phase. Tennessee 41, Ohio 17
Game 4: Tennessee at Florida, September 24th
No doubt about it, this is the biggest game of the season. It’s not even close. Tennessee has absolutely handed Florida the past two wins in this series — wins ten and eleven in Florida’s current winning streak. If Tennessee wins this game, one must think they only have to win one of the next three (in the critical four game stretch of Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama) to win the East. At the very least, a win against Florida would put them in the driver seat. Most importantly, however, is the importance of this game to this team’s (and this program’s) psychology. Losing to Florida has cast a shadow over Butch Jones’ recruiting process. Another loss in this series and players, coaches and fans will all be thinking “here we go again.” Tennessee — players, fans, coaches, pom-pom vendors, parking lot attendents — will be all-in for this game. Florida is talented, especially on defense. Can the Vols find enough space on offense? And is Del Rio the answer for Florida? Finally, the talent overcomes the mental block. Tennessee 24, Florida 17
Game 5: Tennessee at Georgia, October 1st
Tennessee’s come-from-behind win against Georgia in 2015 was the unquestionable turning point for the Vols. They were 2-3 going into that game, and went 5-1 after their win against the Bulldogs. This game will test Tennessee’s depth and their discipline. Georgia will rely heavily on the ground game, with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel expected back and healthy. They also bring back three starting linemen and Jeb Blazevich at tight end, a position that Tennessee has historically struggled against. That will help whichever signal caller the Dawgs start in this game. Most importantly, Tennessee will likely come into this game 4-0, ranked in the Top 10 nationally, staring at an A&M road game, Alabama in two weeks, and in control of their own destiny in the East. Can the Vols put an emotional game against Florida — either an exalting win or a crushing defeat — in the rear-view mirror? Georgia brings the Vols back to earth. Georgia 27, Tennessee 24
Game 6: Tennessee at Texas A&M, October 8th
Tennessee and Texas A&M will play for the first time since the Aggies joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012. Texas A&M is one of the biggest question marks of the season. Can their defense reach their potential? Can Trevor Knight resurrect his career in College Station? With Myles Garrett and a trio of uber-talented receivers, the Aggies certainly have the talent to test any team. This will be Tennessee’s sixth straight week of tough competition, and the middle of third-leg of a brutal stretch. Unlike the previous two weeks, and unlike the upcoming week, this is not a traditional rivalry. Texas A&M makes some plays early, but Tennessee guts this game out and gets out of Texas with an ugly win. Tennessee 31, Texas A&M 30
At this point in the season, Tennessee finds themselves in a position they haven’t been in in over a decade. The Vols are a major player on the national landscape and they have a chance to all the way. The only that stands in their way? Defending Conference Champion and National Champion Alabama and the afore-mentioned stretch of five teams with 14 total 2015 FBS wins.
If the time for Tennessee to win is now, the only thing they’ll know at this point in the season is disappointment. The clock can only strike on the hour-hand of success at the end of the season. What will the bottom half of the schedule bring for the Volunteers? Tennessee Volunteers 2016 Schedule Analysis, Part 2: Games 7-12.
KNOXVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 15: General view of Neyland Stadium during the game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the University of Florida Gators at Neyland Stadium. Photo by Wade Rackley/Tennessee Athletics (Photo by Wade Rackley/University of Tennessee Athletics and UTSports.com http://www.utsports.com, contact: [email protected]/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)