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VOL. 40 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 23, 2016

Nothing else counts for Jones if he can’t top Gators

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Florida Coach Jim McElwain and Tennessee Coach Butch Jones chat prior to last year’s game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Since his arrival at Tennessee in December 2012, Butch Jones often has spoken about the importance of getting the Vols back up and running in their biggest rivalry games.

Easier said than done. Jones has yet to beat either of UT’s two biggest rivals – Florida and Alabama.

The three losses to Alabama are easily explained. The Crimson Tide was the better team across the board in each of those seasons, although the Vols closed the gap considerably in 2015.

But Jones’ 0-3 record against Florida is another matter. The Vols were in deep rebuilding mode in 2013, and it showed in a 31-17 loss in Gainesville. The last two matchups were different, yet UT found a way to lose both times.

That is the baggage Jones carries into this game against Florida. Now in his fourth season as UT coach, Jones has a thorough understanding of the rivalry. To a generation of Vols fans, Florida is a bigger rival than Alabama. For Jones, that means his body of work against the Gators will be a big part of his legacy. And it will impact his future at UT.

Jones is not the first Vols coach to struggle against the Gators. All told, Phillip Fulmer was 4-12 against them. Lane Kiffin swung and missed in his only game against Florida. Derek Dooley was 0-for-3.

Strange things seem to happen when the Vols face Florida.

Fulmer denied it but there was no question that he, his coaching staff and his players succumbed to what he colorfully described as the “pucker factor” at the sight of the Gators. Florida had Fulmer’s number. And he knew it.

As for Jones, his three losses to the Gators include twice to Will Muschamp-coached teams and once to Jim McElwain.

For all the great things Jones has done in recruiting and re-energizing the fan base, his UT resume is lacking until he beats the Gators. And he knows it.

Another way of looking at it: The inconsistent, sometimes downright ugly start to UT’s season will be forgotten if the Vols break their 11-game losing streak against Florida. That’s how much weight this game carries.

UT arrives at the Florida game undefeated, although not by the path many expected. It’s been a struggle.

For much of the Vols’ season-opener against Appalachian State, it looked like Jones might be facing a reclamation project in the balance of the schedule. The Mountaineers, three-touchdown underdogs, were the better team for most of the game. UT trailed 13-3 at halftime and it was no fluke.

The Vols benefitted from a number of mistakes by Appy State, including a missed extra point and a missed 42-yard field goal attempt with 5 ½ minutes remaining in regulation.

Had it not been for Jalen Hurd’s alert recovery of Josh Dobbs’ fumble in the end zone on the first possession of overtime, who knows what would have happened? If an opponent had fallen on the ball, all Appy State would have needed was a field goal to complete an upset of the Vols.

(Appalachian State, now 1-2, lost 45-10 against Miami on Saturday.)

In Week 2, UT started slowly in the Battle at Bristol and trailed Virginia Tech 14-0 before piecing things together for a 45-24 victory. The Vols followed that with an unimpressive 28-19 win at home over Ohio University.

(Virginia Tech, now 2-1, Defeated Boston College 49-0 last week.)

A statistic worth noting: In three games, UT has fumbled a whopping 11 times but has recovered all but one. Those things tend to even out over the course of a season so the Vols need to start holding onto the ball.

Now, it’s Florida Week. It’s not for the faint of heart. During the run of 11 consecutive losses to the Gators, UT sometimes had the better team or at least was on equal footing talent-wise yet found a way to lose. Among them:

l 2006: The Vols, playing at home, led 17-7 midway through the third period and quarterback Erik Ainge felt confident enough about things to do a few mocking Gator Chomps toward Florida fans. Bad idea. The Gators wound up winning 21-20. It didn’t help that Chris Leak, a one-time UT commitment, quarterbacked Florida to the win.

The Gators didn’t necessarily look the part that night but this was a team that eventually went 13-1 and throttled Ohio State 41-14 in the BCS Championship Game.

l 2012: After beating North Carolina State and Georgia State by a combined 52 points, the Vols entered the Top 25 for the first time since the days of Fulmer. Duly impressed, the ESPN College Game Day crew was stationed on the UT campus.

The Vols led 20-13 before surrendering 24 unanswered points in a 37-20 loss. One particular play encapsulated UT’s frustration.

Down by 17 and facing third-and-18 from deep in UT territory with the clock inside six minutes, Tyler Bray uncorked a long throw down the left sideline toward Zach Rogers. The ball sailed high and outside, with Dooley, a one-time wide receiver at the University of Virginia, making a nice catch. Disgusted, Dooley flipped the ball aside and waved his punt team onto the field.

l 2014: Jones’ second UT team was favored over the Gators, who had needed three overtimes to beat Kentucky and were coming off a 42-21 loss to Alabama. The Vols carried a 9-0 lead into the fourth quarter before things went south.

Treon Harris, who had thrown a grand total of two passes in his college career entering the game, replaced an ineffective Jeff Driskel and directed the comeback.

l 2015: UT led 27-14 and had all the momentum early in the fourth quarter but again found a way to lose.

Florida converted four fourth-down situations in two touchdown drives to win. The killer was a 63-yard Will Greer-to-Antonio Callaway pass on fourth-and-14 with 1:26 remaining.

In the heat of battle, Jones made a curious decision after the Vols scored a touchdown to go up by 12 points in the fourth quarter. Instead of going for a two-point conversion to put his team up by 14 (two touchdowns and two extra points), Jones opted to kick the conversion.

After the game, Jones said he was “comfortable with the decision.” He shouldn’t have been.

That’s the nature of this rivalry. From UT’s perspective, nothing seems to go by the book.

For Butch Jones, it’s time to start a new chapter.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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