Making the case for Butch Jones being underrated at Tennessee

DESTIN, Fla. -- This column on Butch Jones must be written now, in the dead of the offseason when deep breaths can be taken. It is a time when such things can be discussed rationally.

Well, maybe.

What I'm about to propose may require one of those deep breaths, but here goes anyway: Butch Jones is underrated at Tennessee.

I  know, I know. The narrative is the exact opposite: The Vols' coach has underachieved. But let's slow down for a second.

Wrapped inside Jones' 31-20 Tennessee record is a budding success story. You want progress? Josh Dobbs became the highest-drafted Tennessee quarterback since Peyton Manning. The six Vols taken in the draft were the most out of Knoxville, Tennessee, in seven years. Defensive end Derek Barnett was the 25th overall player taken.

That's a major reason Jones has the job in the first place: developing NFL talent. He counted it up the other day: Nine of his former players are currently in the league. We're talking about a guy who coached Antonio Brown, J.J. Watt and overall No. 1 pick Eric Fisher.

When Jones arrived from Cincinnati in 2012, Tennessee had been 2-14 in the SEC the prior two seasons. Phil Fulmer himself said Jones inherited "an absolute mess"

In reality, Jones basically inherited 14 years of negative equity since the 1998 national championship. In late 2012, the program was on NCAA probation going back to the Lane Kiffin error … era (2009). There was a Title IX investigation.

How is it not logical to suggest things have gotten better -- a lot better?

"I can't say it, but you are right," Jones said. "The story hasn't been out. Name me another college football program four years in, in as competitive a conference that we're in that faced all the adversity and challenges that we had. Plus, all the expectations we faced year in, year out.

"Then look at the progress that we made."

OK, we will. In four years, Jones has delivered the first three-game bowl winning streak since the Manning years. There have been the first back-to-back final top 25 finishes in 10 years.

In the SEC, only Jones, Nick Saban and Jim McElwain have won at least nine games the last two seasons. In the last three years, only Saban (40) has won more games than Jones (25) among SEC coaches.

Jones' "sin" -- if that's the right term -- is he can't win big enough, fast enough for the likes of some at Tennessee.

Why can't people see past that?

"That's really a great question," Jones told me this week at the SEC spring meetings. "I think we live in a world today where it's not, 'What you've done for me lately,' it's, 'What can you do for me next?'"

And that's fair. This is the SEC, big-boy football. You win or you get out. Everybody in the Strength Everywhere Conference lives in the shadow of Saban's awesome accomplishments.

But Jones isn't about to be fired either. Not with a buyout in the double-digit millions.  

Jones isn't about to be fired unless the bottom falls out. The bottom isn't going to fall out.

I'm not saying Jones will ever win an SEC title. Only four current head coaches in the country have (Saban, Urban Meyer, Gus Malzahn, Mark Richt). But also, only five other active head coaches in the country have won more conference titles than Jones (four) in their careers (Saban, Meyer, Bob Stoops, Gary Patterson, Chris Peterson).

Only 17 current Power Five coaches have even a single Power Five conference title to their name. So that makes Jones an underachiever?

He won those four conference titles in the MAC and the Big East. But that's also a big reason why he was hired at Tennessee.

You can't have it both ways. Not yet, Vol Nation.

Before you set your Twitter accounts to stun, consider this: The main problem for Tennessee is that it doesn't always realize fully its position -- perhaps the sixth-best program in the SEC. Try to tell me that Tennessee should be ranked ahead of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU and others in the league.

It shouldn't be. It's not a state where a load of high school talent resides. According to one source, there are 8-10 Division I players in the state in the next recruiting cycle. 

It's real easy to become a coaching piñata in this conference. Tennessee's coach has become one of them in recent years. Don't ask why. I don't know.

You want to rip him for not winning an SEC title four years into job? It's a process. Yeah, you might have heard that term somewhere else.

But Saban didn't face the loss of scholarships -- or worse -- due to a substandard APR. In Jones' first year, that score stood at 909, 21 points below the NCAA threshold.

"For that [first] semester, we had to make a 1,000 or we'd be sanctioned," Jones explained.

That meant the loss of scholarships or a postseason ban. Jones posted that 1,000. In the latest rankings, Tennessee is safely in the middle of the SEC pack at 972. 

But graduation rates alone don't win championships. Jones may be headed there. Try to assemble the list of coaches who have at least a .625 winning percentage, multiple 10-win seasons, four conference titles and four bowl wins to their name.

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh isn't there. Neither is Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, second to Stoops at Oklahoma in current seniority at one school. Jones has those accolades.

"Before we were selling a dream to these recruits," Jones said. "Now we're able to sell reality and results."

Tennessee went from having no players taken in the 2015 and 2016 drafts to having the fourth-most in the SEC (six) this past April.

Perception can be hell everywhere in college football. The idea for the this column came out of the reaction to Jones' spot in the CBS Sports ranking of Power Five coaches. Jones dropped from 33rd in 2016 to 52nd earlier this month after winning nine games. 

Editor's note: None of the voters positioned Jones better than 46th on their respective rankings.

I'm not going to try to explain it. Call it a tangible example of that perception problem. With 18 returning starters, Tennessee was supposed to win the SEC East last year.

Obviously, the Vols didn't win the division, but despite what you may have heard, it wasn't the end of the world. Jones dealt with an unfortunate rash of injuries.

In a line-of-scrimmage league, four top defensive tackles were out. For some reason, tailback Jalen Hurd thought his best route to the first round of the draft was to transfer and switch to wide receiver.

The fans never forgave him after a goal-line fumble against Georgia on Oct. 1. His Tennessee career essentially ended a month later ended after being removed against South Carolina.

The one-time star, who was within a few hundred yards of becoming Tennessee's career rushing leader, is now catching passes at Baylor.

Unfortunate. So is a conclusion that Tennessee is not making progress. Only 23 coaches in the country have as many wins as Jones (80). There is still upside, plenty of it.

The opposite of that progress is what Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin faced on Tuesday. His athletic director called him out on national television and put the coach square on the hot seat.

After five seasons, a Heisman Trophy and a .675 winning percentage, three straight 8-5 seasons apparently reflects regression.

Things could be worse for Jones. He knows that. But when I told him I was writing this column, he was thankful and cooperative. Without saying it, he was saying it.

Because someone had to say it: Calm the heck down, Vol Nation. The best just might be yet to come. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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