Of the four new head coaches in the SEC in 2013, Tennessee's Butch Jones has probably been the subject of the most skepticism around the conference.
Viewed as the fallback after Tennessee was spurned by Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, all Jones has done since arriving on Rocky Top is secure a top-25 recruiting class in 2013 in the 247Sports.com composite and post one of the nation's top classes for 2014.
Everything Jones has done since taking over the program has been positive. But the importance of one salvaged recruiting class, upward momentum with the class of 2014 and a new-found energy in Vol Nation will be minimized if Tennessee goes out and lays an egg on the field in Year 1.
It shouldn't, though.
"Patience" is a word that has become all too familiar in Knoxville. After the Lane Kiffin debacle in 2009, former head coach Derek Dooley urged fans to be patient during the rebuilding process. But as time went on, patience wore thin and ultimately cost him his job.
Jones finds himself in a similar spot.
The Vols have quality pieces, but they also have major holes to fill—most notably at quarterback, wide receiver and all throughout the defense.
That, coupled with a brutal schedule that has Tennessee facing Alabama in Tuscaloosa in its annual cross-division rivalry game, traveling to Oregon and Florida and facing the Tide, Georgia and South Carolina in the month of October; should dictate that Vol fans need to be patient with Jones.
That's not to say that Tennessee can't be successful. It can, and its play on the field is what should be used to gauge Jones' job performance in Year 1, because a drastic improvement in the Vols' overall record isn't likely.
A silver lining exists, though, in the form of a veteran offensive line and a talented and underrated running game. Tennessee's ability to control the line of scrimmage will be huge as it transitions to a new quarterback with new receivers.
Rajion Neal was solid last season when he was healthy, rushing for 708 yards and five touchdowns in 10 games; while 6'2", 217-pound redshirt freshman Alden Hill looked the part of a bruiser in the spring game, rushing 18 times for 101 yards. If junior Marlin Lane can work his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff after being suspended for violating team rules, look out SEC.
A stout rushing attack will allow Jones to ease in his quarterback—whether it's Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Josh Dobbs or Riley Ferguson—while also protecting a defense that gave up an SEC-worst 471.3 yards and 35.7 points per game last season.
That defense could surprise you this season, though.
Aside from being better suited to run the 4-3—which is what first-year defensive coordinator John Jancek is utilizing—it's a pretty talented group of players who can get things turned around in a hurry.
My colleague Adam Kramer over at Your Best 11 recently profiled massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who will join up with 6'2", 290-pounder Maurice Couch in an effort to clog the middle and free up Tennessee's talented ends and linebackers to do work.
If they can do that, expect big things from the rest of Tennessee's defense.
Tennessee's secondary was a major issue last season, but it should get a boost from the return of safety Brian Randolph from his ACL injury. Toss in sophomore Justin Coleman locking down one of the corner spots, and you have the foundation for a solid secondary—especially if that front seven can generate pressure.
Should Tennessee go to a bowl game in 2013? Absolutely.
That should be the expectation on Rocky Top every season.
But the end result isn't as important as the path the Vols take to get there. Patience wore thin in Knoxville long ago, and hoping for baby steps forward has probably gotten really old for Vols fans.
Assuming Tennessee isn't in the title hunt and doesn't tank like Auburn did last season, the record shouldn't matter.
The Vols need to fix the major issues, become more consistent and take that momentum into next offseason. Don't judge Jones and the Vols by record alone, because there's going to be much more to it than that.
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