HOOVER, Ala. — Butch Jones was looking for a defining moment out his Tennessee team, one that would convince the head coach that his young bunch of Volunteers was for real. He got it at South Carolina, in the form of an improbable fourth-quarter comeback and overtime victory which propelled the Big Orange toward its first bowl victory since 2008.
“There comes a point in time where there’s a defining moment for your football team, where maybe they win a game they’re not supposed to, or finally it all gels and it comes together and it clicks, and everything that you’ve been preaching and preaching and preaching, all of a sudden, it comes to fruition, and they can see it,” Jones said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “... You can stress it, stress it, stress it, but at some point in time, there needs to be tangible evidence, and we were able to see that last year, particularly at the tail end of our season.”
That 45-42 overtime victory, in which Tennessee rallied from two touchdowns behind with 4:42 left in regulation, proved the turning point in Jones’ breakthrough second season in Knoxville. The Volunteers came to Columbia at 3-5, but finished 4-1, including a dominant performance over Iowa in the TaxSlayer (formerly Gator) Bowl in Jacksonville.
That game was a hinge point for both programs, given that it also sparked debate over how much longer Steve Spurrier might coach at USC, and forced the Gamecocks to win two of their final three regular-season games to salvage a winning record and a bowl bid. But at Tennessee it was the beginning of a rebirth, one that promises to continue this season, when the Vols are expected to contend in the SEC East.
“We have a lot of positive energy, a momentum, and enthusiasm that’s surrounding our football program right now,” Jones said. “I think a lot of it is the by-product by the way in which we ended the season,
This Volunteers team is still very young — Jones said 64 percent of his roster has played one season of college football or less — and has some holes to fill, particularly on defense. But quarterback Josh Dobbs leads a returning cast which found its footing at the end of last season, beginning on that wild night in Columbia.
“That game showed who we are, and what Tennessee stands for,” said Vols defensive back Cameron Sutton. “It showed the resilience we had as a team. On the sideline, there was no quit. It definitely turned our season around.”
And that wild game last season at Williams-Brice isn’t the only recent element added to a series that’s never been short on emotion. Spurrier and Jones took playful jabs and one another Tuesday, beginning when the USC coach tried to put the Gamecocks’ record last season in perspective by telling a group of reporters that “there are people I know in Knoxville and Fayetteville doing cartwheels over 7-6.”
Tennessee and Arkansas each finished with the same record as USC, but the former two programs are viewed as being on the upswing, while the Gamecocks took a step back from three consecutive 11-win campaigns. Regardless, Jones couldn’t help but retort in his introductory remarks.
“Contrary to reports,” he said, “there were no backflips and there were no somersaults.”
Nearly four months remain until the Gamecocks visit Neyland Stadium, but that game on Nov. 7 is already looking like all kinds of fun.
Another Gamecocks opponent made some staff changes after a season which fell short of expectations. Texas A&M may have rolled up more yards than any opponent in history during last season’s opener in Columbia, but the Aggies finished 8-5 primarily because its defense wound up as statistically the worst in the league.
To try and remedy that, Texas A&M wrote a big check to lure defensive coordinator and Dillon native John Chavis from LSU. After being held to 20 points or less by the Tigers in each of the past three seasons, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin figured — if you can’t beat ’em, hire ’em.
“That’s exactly what I did. There’s really nothing more to the answer than that. That’s true. We’ve studied the defense. We get it. We struggled. It’s a great fit for us and a great fit for him. He was ready for a new challenge,” Sumlin said.
“We were in the market, obviously, and here’s a guy who’s got a tremendous track record in the SEC and recently in the SEC West. So his knowledge of opponents, his knowledge of the league helps me as a head coach, but it also helps our team and brings confidence right away to a defense that really needed it. His style, we’ve studied it so much over the course of the last three years in the off-season to try to get better.”
Sumlin also changed his offensive line coach and had to replace receivers coach David Beaty, now head coach at Kansas. The Aggies finished 8-5, not what folks in College Station had envisioned after a 5-0 start which began with a 52-28 rout at South Carolina, where quarterback Kenny Hill set a school record for passing yards. Before the end of the season, Hill would be gone.
“We look up after week two or three last year, some people are saying we’ve got a Heisman Trophy winner, and we’re first or second in the country. Six weeks later, we can’t win a game,” Sumlin said. “We end up the year, we go to Auburn and win and win the bowl game. So our guys left the season feeling a heck of a lot better about themselves than they did during the middle of the year. But when you have that many young guys that are playing, I think what we learned as coaches and hopefully as players is what it takes to go through the grind of this league.”
Texas A&M hosts South Carolina Oct. 31 in a Kyle Field which is being renovated to seat 102,500, making it one of the largest stadiums in the county. “They’ve got all the bells and whistles in there with Internet, all that, wi-fi, all the stuff that fans need, you guys need,” Sumlin said. “They said you can make 100,000 phone calls at one time.”