As Week 4 of the college football season takes flight tonight, Tennessee finds themselves in very familiar territory — trying to pick up the pieces and move forward after a loss to Florida.
This year, however, learning from the loss down in Gainesville and moving on feels not so familiar than in past years. Every year following this defeat, Tennessee coaches have bombarded everyone who would listen with the old, “There's still plenty to play for” refrain.
True as it was, you wanted to hear that about as much as you’d want to hear another chorus of “We Are the Boys from Old Florida.”
But on Monday, Butch Jones dropped the line at his press conference and it was probably the most accurate statement that he made.
In years past, the winner of the Florida-Tennessee was pointed directly to Atlanta and the SEC Championship game. However in 2017, that's hardly a given because the SEC East is far from decided. Florida ain’t going undefeated from here on out.
Based on what we have seen to date, anyone in the SEC East can beat anyone else on any Saturday. Throw in what LSU’s crash and burn in Starkville on Saturday and pretty much anything seems possible for the Vols. Better said, outside of the Alabama game, Tennessee will not be a major underdog in any of its remaining games.
The Vols also won’t be a heavy favorite often, either. The 2017 season could end up being the start of a run for Tennessee football or it could be a massive disaster.
Here’s what I do know: The effort that Tennessee players have given through three games shows that the best possible scenario is possible. This team's effort should be taken into account. They play their butts off. They played plenty hard enough and tough enough to win in The Swamp last Saturday — something more talented and more experienced Vol teams have failed to do. Watch the game again and simply judge what happens between the whistles. Tennessee’s players didn’t wilt when things went wrong.
It’s very impressive. There is something there. But how can that toughness and resolve be turned into wins?
It’s going to come down to coaching. And coaching the team that you have. Two weeks ago in this column space, I wrote that the Indiana State game was a personnel game. This week it's an “identity game.”
From top to bottom, the Vols must grow and grow quickly. For the grand compliments on the effort, there are problems. There are depth issues. Tennessee is not talented enough in some spots. Injuries have taken away leaders and playmakers.
But every team in the SEC East can say the same thing.
This Tennessee coaching staff must figure out the plan to win with THIS team. Yes, Tennessee has to execute better. There were plenty of mistakes made by the players between the white lines. There were also mistakes made by those on the headsets. Jones took responsibility this week for the loss and made it clear the focus is on the details.
The biggest detail is to identify the best plan for THIS team to win and implement it.
For example, Jones indicated there were a lot of missed assignments by the receivers. That may be true, but is the offensive game plan load too much for a young group? If so, simplify it for those who are overwhelmed.
Quinten Dormady checked out of a run play at the goal line. Offensive coordinator Larry Scott and quarterback coach Mike Canales have make sure they are not putting too much on a still inexperienced quarterback.
I can go on offensively, but you watched the game. The coaches have to help the players by picking what they do best and doing it. This 2017 bunch isn’t ready to run Bill Walsh’s offense.
Defensively, Bob Shoop must determine if he's playing his best 11 players. Quart’e Sapp didn't play in the first two games, but was the second-leading tackler Saturday. Daniel Bituli leads the SEC in tackles but is still battling to be a starter. Who are the best cornerbacks for this team?
The defensive plan to win must start with making sure the best 11 are playing.
And finally, this coaching staff must manage games better. The play-calling in the last trip in the redzone was baffling, to say the least. Tennessee didn't manage the clock well and didn't give the ball to its best player. The Vols are likely going to be in close games, therefore the details of game management must improve.
Tennessee was the better team last week and lost when it should have won. The Vols can legitimately compete with/beat anyone left on their schedule (aside from probably Alabama). The harsh reality is that they could lose to all the conference opponents, as well.
That's why the Vols must develop their identity to win with THIS team, NOW. Because they can win NOW. Maybe not every game, maybe not enough to be a Top 10 team, but it is not crazy to see how this club could finish 9-3 and lay a foundation for 2018 and beyond.
This team lost some significant talent and experience from the 2016 Vols. They also brought in five new coaches and changed offensive coordinators. But Jones and his staff have coached this team for three games now, so they ought to know the players’ strength and weaknesses. They also should know that these players like to play and don’t seem to be afraid. Knowing what the Tennessee coaches know, it's a must that they coach this team for who they are right now, not an idea of who they should or might be.
Because as maddening as it is to say, there still is a ton of football to play.