Tennessee’s football program is at a crossroads.
New rumors seemingly emerge each day and Butch Jones currently sits on a percolating hot seat following a 41-0 loss to No. 5 Georgia.
Still, despite all the recent chaos on Rocky Top, several Vol veterans insist that the locker room is fine and they’re rallying around their embattled head coach.
This week, multiple Tennessee players have defended the program, with fifth-year wideout Josh Smith adamantly stating, “It’s just all the outside noise saying different things. This team believes in this team. I love this team and I’m just ready for South Carolina.”
Smith, a Knoxville native, passionately went to bat for Jones and his teammates Tuesday, adding, “It’s just outdoor noise. We don’t really listen to it. We believe in coach Jones. He’s taken us from no win seasons to bowl games. What more could you ask for? Yea, we’ve had a couple bad games, but that’s college football. It’s hard. In the SEC, every game is a battle.”
Tennessee sits at 3-2 — 0-2 in the SEC — with a matchup against South Carolina (4-2) at home Saturday. Road trips to Alabama and Kentucky are upcoming, so Saturday’s showdown is a must-win for the Vols, especially for a staff embroiled in speculation.
The bye week came at the optimal time after the school’s worst-loss ever in Neyland Stadium two weeks ago, but questions remains on how focused this team is considering all the added distractions and unrest among the fan base.
Since Tennessee last played on Sept. 30: A rotational offensive lineman abruptly transferred. A starting defensive was suspended indefinitely for a practice cheap shot against the team’s best offensive lineman. Tennessee's top recruit pondered decommitting. Jones was the center of completely bogus off-the-field rumors, and the team made a noteworthy change at quarterback.
That’s a lot to digest, but offensive lineman Brett Kendrick suggested that Sunday’s closed-door, senior-only meeting was pivotal in making sure everyone circles the wagon the rest of the season.
“Obviously, coming off a tough loss like that to Georgia, people are going to ask questions … but we have a really close team. We love each other. We have a lot fun together. I think we’re doing just fine,” Kendrick said.
“I don’t know if people thought we’d just come in here because of the team we had last year and people would roll over for us, but obviously it didn’t work out that way. We’re sitting here at 3-2. We have seven games to prove how talented we are.
“When you lose, everything gets magnified. We’ve had some tough losses here and bounced back from them, so being an older guy, you just can’t listen to what everyone else is saying.”
It remains to be seen if Tennessee can bounce back from all the turmoil in recent weeks. The Vols are 2.5-point favorites against the Gamecocks, yet all the “outside noise” has certainly been a distraction. They’re effectively eliminated from the SEC East race and they're constantly answering questions about their head coach's future, but safety Micah Abernathy bluntly stated the goal moving forward is to “win every game.”
“We’re going to rally around everybody in our program. We try not to pay attention to it, but obviously we hear about it going to class everyday or whatever, but they don’t really know what goes on it our locker room.”