Earlier this week I exchanged emails with SB Nation’s Resident Bad Boy and Rocky Top Talk’s Senior Editor Hunter Turner. HT was born the son of a poor East Tennessee coal miner but would grow up, and now manages a wind-powered artisanal soap factory in the Seychelles. When he grows tired of creating jobs and increasing livelihoods in the developing world, he gives back by writing about Tennessee football and recruiting. You can follow him @CobbWebbAttack for his biannual tweets.
Thanks, I guess, HT for providing way more thoughtful responses than my questions warranted blah blah blah. Without further ado:
1. Let's immediately get to the heart of the matter: does Butch Jones get a fourth season in Knoxville? Regardless of what a pending new athletic director and boosters think, what's your sense of his command of the locker room?
It's an interesting question, but the short answer is that Butch Jones will be Tennessee's head coach in 2017 unless he leaves of his own volition. Based on his most recent contract extension, Jones would be owed more than $10,000,000 if he was fired following the current season, plus a significant amount for his assistant coaches. That's too much money for an athletic department that only recently balanced the books after a disastrous carousel of coaching hires. Remember: in the not too distant past, Tennessee was paying multi-million dollar buyouts to Phil Fulmer, Bruce Pearl (basketball), Todd Raleigh (baseball), and Mike Hamilton (athletic director) at the same time. The Vols have a number of rich alums who could write a gigantic check, but those same alums paid Derek Dooley and his staff more than $8,000,000 to go away just four years ago. Barring a total collapse on the field, it's tough to can the guy who brought Tennessee back from irrelevance, especially if he matches or exceeds last year's nine wins.
It's very likely that there are major staff changes again this year, with offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and offensive line coach Don Mahoney the most likely candidates to go.
However, there is a teeny-tiny chance that Jones could leave of his own volition. Tennessee fans are a passionate (some would say obnoxious) bunch and the media in Knoxville isn't anywhere close to as obsequious as in Tuscaloosa or Athens. I could see a scenario where the right job opens up and an increasingly peevish Jones borrows his exit strategy from Cuonzo Martin.
2. Let's say Tennessee finishes the season 9-3 (doable with two home games remaining against the likes of UK, Vanderbilt, and Missouri). That would give them a conference record of 5-3, and conceivably a backdoor capture of the SEC East title since they possess a win over Florida (assuming the Gators lose to either South Carolina or LSU). Would that make a significant impact to the program's image among the fan base as well as the 2017 recruiting class which appears behind at this point?
There are Tennessee fans who don't want to back in to the SEC East title and face Alabama again. These fans are idiots. If the Vols win out and the Gators drop a game to LSU (probable), Tennessee would claim the East for the first time since 2007-- an eternity for those accustomed to Phil "workin' like heck" Fulmer. Sure, Alabama is in Death Star mode now, but Tennessee would be healthier for an SEC Championship rematch, and stranger things have happened (see: LSU-Tennessee 2001 SEC Championship. Ugh, on second thought, definitely don't).
For recruiting purposes, an SEC East title would be helpful but not necessary. Under Jones, Tennessee has made a habit of turning over around 15-20% of "commitments" prior to signing day. I'd expect the same trend to continue this year.
3. Despite some tough losses this season, Tennessee was hit extremely hard by the injury bug this season losing 15 starters at varying points. What's the team's health look like heading into Saturday?
Tennessee is missing key players in the interior of the defensive line, where super sophomores Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie are both out for the season and senior Danny O'Brien was kicked off the team for a rules violation. That's not a great situation to have when facing a team who wants to run the ball like Kentucky.
The Vols will be relatively healthy elsewhere, with the offensive line back to some semblance of order and the secondary semi-settled.
4. Give us the biggest surprise position group this season as well as the most disappointing position group contrary to preseason predictions.
Tennessee's boys in the trenches have been the most disappointing position groups this year, and they've also been the most surprising, in that none of us thought they would be so terrible. The Vols' offensive and defensive line groups both returned the vast majority of starters, had deep benches of backups, and had talented youngsters primed for breakout seasons. To this point in the season, both groups have been astoundingly bad, with injuries accounting for only part of the regression. Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney is a popular target for fan ire, and not without good reason.
The wide receivers are looking better, although that's 99% Josh Malone doing Josh Malone things full time.
5. Defensive end Derek Barnett leads the SEC in both sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (14.5) with three games remaining. If Barnett was a Marvel comics character, which one do you think the future First Team All-American and NFL first round pick would be?
I'm going chalk for this one: Barnett is Captain America. He's a guy who doesn't need a bunch of special equipment or fancy powers-- he just puts his pants on one leg at a time and outworks, outwits, and outlasts the competition. Barnett has never looked the part in the same way that Miles Garrett does, but he also doesn't take plays off like Garrett or play his best against garbage competition like Garrett. It seems ridiculous, but Barnett is only three sacks away from tying sack master Reggie White's all-time record at Tennessee.
6. What's your prediction for the outcome of Saturday's contest, and what will be one or two of the biggest factors?
As you'll see from our weekly predictions thread, I've been horrible all year at gauging the Vols against the Vegas line. So I'll just say that I think Tennessee can win this one on talent alone, but I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them commit dumb penalties, turn the ball over, and generally look godawful for at least two quarters.
Two things should determine the outcome of this game: 1) turnovers and 2) can Tennessee stop Kentucky's running game.
7. Bonus question: the ASoB commentariat have long debated the ranking of Wes Anderson movies. Please provide us your ranking, and also explain to them that only philistines don't rank Moonrise Kingdom first.
Au contraire, only a Philistine would rank a lightweight romantic farce like Moonrise Kingdom over more introspective fare. My ranking, which is obviously correct and beyond reproach, was arrived at using a complex formula that includes secret votes by my collaborators the Illuminati, the Kentucky Mafia, and the unloved third Wilson brother:
- The Royal Tenenbaums
- Fantastic Mr. Fox
- Moonrise Kingdom
- Grand Budapest Hotel
- Life Aquatic
- Bottle Rocket
- Space Intentionally Left Blank for Future Achievement
- Darjeeling Limited
Although, this SNL skit is probably the fourth best movie.