The sting went deeper than just missing a bowl game. Jones and his staff missed on more recruiting fuel. There's no Year 1 bowl game to point to as a step in the right direction.
And the Vols were oh so close.
The right direction was inches away.
Tennessee had its chances and fell short. Just short. It rubbed salt in the wound.
Jones' "the sun will come up tomorrow" post-game attitude was no where to be found.
It's hard to blame him.
Wasted, blown chances.
"What do you think it's like?" Jones snapped back when asked about his post-loss emotions.
Among Jones' encyclopedia-sized repertoire of snappy sayings, "inches make the champion" could be his favorite.
The loss defied that.
"The inches got us today," Jones said, eyes down, tone bleak.
There were plenty of blown inches to point to.
Inches Jones hopes recruiting and revamped talent will gobble up down the road.
You can pick and choose the oh-so-close moments.
There was the third-and-1 from the 45-yard line with three minutes left. Rajion Neal stomached the handoff and was eaten in the backfield for a loss of three, forcing the Vols to punt.
One yard – 36 inches – away from chewing up more clock and perhaps holding on for the all-important win No. 5.
|Linebacker Dontavis Sapp (right) shares a hug with Tennessee head coach Butch Jones as he makes his way through Senior Day ceremonies at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.|
Then there was the most painful inch of all: The turnover on downs turned first down to set up the game winning score.
A whistle shrieked.
Sapp sank down to his knees, watching as the chains and pending measurement inched closer.
Short. Inches short. Tennessee football.
The battle of inches seemed to be won.
Sapp sprang up, throwing his hands toward the blackened November sky as he raced to the sideline. He screamed at the crowd, hugged teammates and waived a towel.
It could have been a foundation-fueling stop.
"The previous play is under review."
The words hung in the crisp air.
Sapp dropped back to his knees, the same position he'd be in as Vanderbilt charged the field when Joshua Dobbs' Hail Mary pass fell harmlessly to the turf.
For once, the inches seemed to be going Tennessee's way.
The football was pried out of Tennessee's hands three times. All three times, the Vols fell on their own fumbles.
The luck didn't last.
It hasn't for a while now.
Inches haven't come easy for Tennessee's seniors – careers filled with oh-so-close losses. There's the Music City Bowl, Alton Howard's fumble against Georgia, the LSU loss, to painfully point to a few.
It's hard not to feel for them.
Jones certainly does.
"You have 28 seniors who have given everything to this football program. Yeah, it's emotional," he said. "I hurt for them."
Jones told me back in April that losing is a disease.
"We've had a lot of ills around here," he added.
He's trying to cure them and create a culture based on doing the little things, based on winning the inch.
The more talent that inks with the Vols, the easier that becomes.
It's hard to hear "future, future, future" – The Vols will be better in the future. It gets old. Fast.
But it's just true.
"Tennessee will be OK," Jones said nearly smiling. "It's just a matter of time."
For the Vols, time equals inches.
The loss stings because a few more inches here, a different call there and Tennessee walks away winners.
Just don't sulk too much. The recently patented heart-breaking loss is on its way out of Knoxville.
That inch-long dotted line next to the "X" on a National Letter of Intent.