Fans who followed the Derek Dooley “Reign of Error” at Tennessee may recall the regular-season finale of Year 2 as the biggest game of his tenure. His Vol record was 11-13 but a bowl bid hung in the balance as he visited Lexington in 2011 to face a Kentucky program Tennessee had beaten 26 times in a row.
This is noteworthy because the regular-season finale of Year 2 might be the biggest game of Butch Jones’ tenure, as well. His Vol record is 10-13 but a bowl bid hangs in the balance as he prepares to visit Nashville to face a Vanderbilt program Tennessee has beaten 28 times in the past 31 meetings.
With a 5-6 record, Dooley’s 2011 Vols needed a victory Nov. 26 at Kentucky to qualify for postseason play. With a 5-6 record, Jones’ 2014 Vols need a victory Nov. 29 at Vandy to qualify for postseason play.
Bored by the prospect of a third-tier bowl bid, several 2011 Vols went through the motions at Lexington. Result: Tennessee suffered a humiliating 10-7 loss to a Big Blue team reduced to playing a wide receiver at quarterback. That setback kept Tennessee home for the holidays and sent Dooley’s popularity plummeting like a skydiver with a defective parachute.
Given the parallels between the regular-season finale of Dooley’s second year and the regular-season finale of Jones’ second year, an obvious question arises: Will Jones suffer a similar fate – seeing his team sleepwalk through a loss to a decidedly inferior foe, costing the program a bowl bid and costing the head man some points off of his approval rating?
Not a chance, says Vol linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who grew up in Clarksville, just 47 miles northwest of Vandy’s campus.
“We want to beat Vanderbilt every year,” Reeves-Maybin said following Saturday night’s 29-21 loss to Missouri. “It’s a rivalry game. You know they got us the last two years, and we don’t like those guys, so we’re going to come out and we’re going to play our hearts out. We’ve got one game to get to a bowl game. The program hasn’t been in a while, and we got to get the job done.”
Unlike several of Dooley’s 2011 Vols, Jones’ 2014 Vols seem to understand that making a bowl game – no matter how nondescript it might be – is the minimum standard for measuring a Big Orange season. Step 1 is a bowl bid. Step 2 is a winning record. Step 3 is a national ranking. Step 4 is a division title. Step 5 is an SEC title and Step 6 is a national title.
Tennessee hasn’t won a national title since 1998, hasn’t won an SEC title since 1998 and hasn’t won a division title since 2007. The Vols haven’t posted a winning record since going 7-6 in 2009, haven’t finished a season with a national ranking since 2007 and haven’t played in a bowl game since 2010.
Obviously, a bowl bid would be a nice Christmas present for a loyal fan base that has stuck with the program through consecutive seasons of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 5-7. Most fans realize the program nearly flat-lined during Dooley’s three-year misadventure but still expect Jones to beat the Commodores and get Tennessee back to postseason play for the first time in four years. That would represent a huge step in the program’s return to relevance.
Seven Tennessee freshmen started Saturday night’s game with Missouri, the first time that has happened in program history. They were receiver Josh Malone, guard Jashon Robertson, running back Jalen Hurd, defensive end Derek Barnett, middle linebacker Jakob Johnson, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and safety Todd Kelly Jr. Counting Ethan Wolf, who has started all but three games at tight end, eight of the 22 first-teamers on Saturday’s two-deep were rookies.
It’s worth noting that five of those eight – Malone, Wolf, Hurd, Johnson and Moseley – got head starts by participating in spring practice last March. Those 15 workouts dramatically accelerated their development, which sets up the next point: Bowl preparation essentially is an extra spring practice. Pre-bowl workouts may not mean much to veterans like Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Pig Howard, Curt Maggitt and Brian Randolph but they are invaluable to freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores who have little or no experience against college-level competition.
In addition to the eight freshmen already mentioned, nine more saw significant action (scrimmage or special teams) against Missouri – cornerbacks D’Andre Payne and RaShaan Gaulden, safety Evan Berry, linebacker Elliott Berry, receiver Vic Wharton, kicker Aaron Medley, defensive lineman Dimarya Mixon, offensive lineman Coleman Thomas and tight end Daniel Helm.
Several of these 17 freshmen already exhibit flashes of greatness. The rest appear destined to become exceptional players in time. With the added benefit of bowl workouts, that time just might arrive during the 2015 season.
Reeves-Maybin sees value in Vandy matchup
Jones discusses Missouri, program future