Butch Jones's tenure at Tennessee followed a clear, positive trajectory over his first three seasons. The Volunteers went 5-7 in his debut season of 2013, 7-6 in 2014, then 9-4 with a top-25 finish in 2015.
Everything built toward 2016, with a veteran roster led by quarterback Josh Dobbs, when Tennessee was supposed to end its 11-year losing streak to Florida, return to the SEC Championship for the first time since 2007 and announce itself as a member of the national elite.
The Vols started 5-0, beating Florida and Georgia in back-to-back weeks, climbing to No. 9 in the AP poll with a clear path to Atlanta. But Tennessee fell in a double-overtime loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 8, was blown out by Alabama a week later, and then dropped a 24-21 decision to South Carolina a week after that. Control of the SEC East was ceded to Florida, and any possible goodwill to be gained from the 2016 season evaporated when Tennessee lost at Vanderbilt to close the regular season.
Tennessee has hired a new athletics director since the end of last season, which means that new AD has been asked the obligatory question on behalf of a restless fanbase about if Jones is on the hot seat heading into his fifth season in Knoxville. Here's what Currie said:
“I think I would defer to our Hall of Fame head coach who lives in town, Phillip Fulmer,” Currie told WATE-6 in Knoxville, via SEC Country. “He had some very descriptive comments that maybe a sitting athletic director can’t make about that kind of talk.”
And here's what Phil Fulmer had to say about that:
“People ask, ‘If he doesn’t win nine or 10 games do you get rid of him? Are you kidding me? Have y’all paid attention the past four or five years?”
Nevertheless, 2017 is important for Jones. His contract was last extended after the 2014 season, which, in coaching years, is a long time.
“Whether someone has a contract that’s five years, 10 years, 15 years or 20 years, there’s always going to be someday who thinks it’s too short or too long,” Currie said. “We’re not going to worry about that public talk right now, we’re focused on the fundaments of our program, and I can tell you how excited I am by the disciplineand organization that I see Coach Jones and his staff building.”
Tennessee's 2017 schedule is predictably difficult. The Vols open with Georgia Tech in Atlanta -- there will likely be as much orange as gold in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium stands -- visit Florida and Alabama while hosting Georgia and LSU.
Nine or 10 wins may or may not be the bar for Jones this fall. But he may want to go ahead and get there, just in case.