Tennessee must contend in the SEC in 2017, and it all starts with Butch Jones

HOOVER, Ala. -- Enough is enough. It's time for Tennessee to be relevant again.

It's time for coach Butch Jones to break the glass ceiling of a program and fan base starved for success and bloated with heartbreak.

It's time for Jones to prove that he's the right man to lead the orange and white.

The Vols were picked second to win the SEC East prior to the 2015 season, and came within one Will Grier-to-Antonio Callaway touchdown from knocking off rival Florida in The Swamp -- a game that would have given them their first SEC East title since 2007. As the massive favorite in 2016, though, the Vols stumbled to an 8-4 record that included stunning losses at South Carolina and Vanderbilt, the stunning mid-season departure of star running back Jalen Hurd and a mass exodus of wasted talent to the NFL.

With five years worth of a resume at Rocky Top, a 14-18 career conference record and a ceiling that is proving to be harder to move than initially thought in a wide open SEC East, Jones can't be the king of "just OK" anymore.

Yet, during his time at SEC Media Days, Jones sung the praises of what he's done as Tennessee's head coach after being specifically asked about what should be the fair expectation for this year's squad.

"It's very difficult to win in the SEC," Jones said. "We're only one of three teams to win nine games two years in a row in the Southeastern Conference. We just won our third consecutive bowl game, which hasn't been done in 20 years at the University of Tennessee."

That sound you heard in that background was a collective yawn.

While Jones is technically accurate with his stats, he's missing the mark with what they mean.

First, and most importantly, is the fact that the two other teams with nine or more wins in 2015 and 2016 were Alabama and Florida. You might know them well from their appearances in the last two SEC Championship Games. 

The 9-4 record in 2015 was loaded with close losses to major opponents, including a late loss on the road to eventual national champion Alabama and an overtime loss to College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma. It provided hope. It provided optimism. It provided more proof that, at the time, the Tennessee program was still going forward with the pedal to the floor.

Last year's 9-4 record was the exact opposite. It provided chaos. It provided uncertainty. It provided doubt that the once-promising program that was built "brick by brick" topped out much sooner than the initial construction plans indicated. 

He doubled down on justifying his marginal success when asked if he viewed last season as a disappointment. 

"I don't view it as a disappointment," he said. "The way I view it is that we didn't accomplish everything we set out to do."

One of his own players -- defensive lineman Kendal Vickers -- contradicted the orange and white talking points memo in the same building on the same day. 

Jones' comments are a symptom of an extreme lack of self-awareness. 

Top-tier programs shouldn't stall out at .500 in the SEC in a division as winnable as the East. Top-tier coaches shouldn't tout stalling out as a positive. Top-tier coaches shouldn't have to sell themselves to the public after four seasons in the books.

It's true that Jones inherited a mess. Former coach Derek Dooley left the program in shambles, devoid of depth and talent in the trenches and without much hope for the future. He changed that "brick-by-brick," and deserves credit for that.

But Jones isn't doing himself any favors by attempting to explain on-the-field disappointment as success. All that does is solidify that ceiling in brick.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, while also hosting on ESPNU on SiriusXM Radio channel 84, the... Full Bio

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