It is hard to believe that the fourth game of the college football season is labeled a “must win” game. Fair or not, that is the burden Tennessee Coach Butch Jones and his Volunteers may be facing in Saturday’s tangle with the Florida Gators.
There are two types of must-win situations. One is a necessary victory to stay alive for a division, conference or national title.
The other involves job security for the head coach and his staff. The Gators may well help decide the fate of the 2016 Vols as well as Jones following this season.
Jones and Tennessee averted total disaster by escaping a program-jarring upset attempt from Appalachian State on opening night. They rebounded with a solid 45-24 win over Virginia Tech in a game played in the middle of Bristol Motor Speedway.
Last week’s 28-19 home victory over the Ohio Bobcats made their legions of followers nervous again. Despite playing as a 27-point favorite, Tennessee led by only two points with under 12 minutes remaining.
The Gators come to Knoxville with an 11-game winning streak against Tennessee. Fans, alumni, players, coaches and everyone within shouting distance of Rocky Top are sick of losing to Florida.
If the streak reaches 12, fans and alumni will want to vent on someone. Jones is not among those calling this game a must-win.
While it is unlikely Jones’s job would truly be on the line with a loss, stranger things have happened. He is under contract through the 2020 season at approximately $3.6 million per year.
Jones signed an extension of his original contract with outgoing athletic director David Hart 21 months ago. With Hart soon to be out of the picture, a new athletic director may have other ideas.
But only if this season turns into a major disappointment. A victory over Florida would go a long way toward earning a place in the SEC Championship Game.
Now in his fourth season, Jones has done a reasonable job, going 24-17. The problem is Tennessee is only 10-14 in conference play under Jones and they lack a signature win.
Saturday would be that win he and Rocky Top are looking for. Getting by Appalachian State and Ohio are ok, but big time recruits gravitate to programs competing at the highest level. A win over Florida gives Tennessee an injection of credibility.
Former Volunteer Coach Phillip Fulmer argues that Saturday’s game is not a make-or-break game.
“If you win it, the season’s not over and if you lose it the season’s not over,” he said on Thursday.
Fullmer speaks with some experience. His 1997 squad, led by quarterback Peyton Manning, lost to Florida, yet won the SEC Championship.
But that was then. After Saturday, the Vols hit the road to face Georgia and then Texas A&M.
Their next home game is against Alabama on October 15. As far as winning the SEC East, the schedule seems to define Saturday’s game as “must-win.”
Everything seems to favor the Vols. They are playing at home in front of more than 100,000 people.
Tennessee is led by veteran quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who has accounted for nine touchdowns in three games. Florida is going with fifth-year transfer Austin Appleby, who is making his first start for the Gators.
Tennessee is a touchdown favorite to end their misery.