By Alex Norman
After winning eight games in the regular season for the first time since 2007, Tennessee has momentum going into the bowl game.
More importantly, there are a lot of reasons for Vols fans to be excited about the 2016 season, and it isn’t just manufactured hype.
The Vols will return a ton of talent from a squad that won six of its last seven games, including the last five in a row.
“We did not let any adversity define us,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones during a press conference last week. “We defended ourselves by the way we continue to grow, elevate our play, and get better and better. I thought we were able to learn from our mistakes and continue to move forward.”
“This was a good step this year. I think winning eight games this year was a positive step for our football program,” said Tennessee Athletic Director Dave Hart. “I go back to the Georgia game where we were down 24-3 coming off some gut-wrenching, heartbreaking losses and without question, that’s when this team took a giant step forward. Let’s be honest, if the culture wasn’t what it is, what Butch has developed, that would not have occurred. We haven’t looked back since that comeback against Georgia. This is a different football team. This is a confident football team that has gained a lot of experience as the season has progressed.”
It’s no secret that college football is in a time of upheaval. Three SEC East teams will have new head coaches in 20106, including Georgia. The Bulldogs fired Mark Richt after 15 years, despite a 9 win season. In the SEC West, LSU tried to fire Les Miles but at the last moment realized it would have been a public relations nightmare to boot the likable coach that has compiled a 111-32 record since 2005.
Incredibly, the Tennessee football program, which has been home to dysfunction since firing Phillip Fulmer in 2008, now might be one of the more stable programs in the league. Butch Jones and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops are the elder statesmen in the SEC East, despite the fact that both have only been at their respective schools for three years.
Butch Jones is under contract through the year 2020, but from the sounds of things a contract extension could be coming soon.
“Butch and I communicate, as we do with all of our coaches, on a very regular basis,” said Hart. “So we’ve already opened those conversations and we’ll continue to have those conversations.”
“I’ve stated it very clearly, Tennessee is a place I want to be,” said Jones. “My family loves it here. Our fan base has been extremely loyal. I’m a big believer in loyalty and right now Tennessee is where I’m extremely happy. This is home to me and this is home to my family.”
One concern that Jones might have regards his assistant coaches. There hasn’t been much turnover in the three years that he has been in charge, but that could change over the next few weeks. If that happens? It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Tennessee.
“When they get phone calls that is a compliment to the program,” said Jones. “Everyone around the country understands what we’re building here, the progress that we’ve made so far. So to me, I take that as a compliment. If a coach has an opportunity to better himself, better his family, something that really fits his career goals, I’m always going to be supportive. Obviously, I’ll speak my opinion. We’ve been together for a very long time. I’ll point out the plusses and minuses. But again, when they come after your coaches, I think that’s an overall compliment to your football program. We have some very good football coaches here and even better people.”
Tennessee isn’t back at the top of the Southeastern Conference, but they are getting closer. And with nine games being played within the state’s borders, plus the Florida and Alabama games at Neyland Stadium, the anticipation for the Vols 2016 season will do nothing but grow in the months to come.