There's a traditional plot point in the 2017 SEC East, but the Tennessee Volunteers don't quite fit inside its dimensions.
The traditional plot point in this year's East lies in Athens, where Kirby Smart takes a loaded Georgia roster onto the gridiron, needing to prove himself. Yes, it's only Smart's second season on the job, but he was Nick Saban's national championship-winning defensive coordinator at Alabama. He wanted the big-time gig, and he also wanted to spend no time in the salt mines of the Group of 5. In turn, Georgia bet big and wanted the brand-name coordinator in hopes of an instant return to prominence following Mark Richt's successful-but-not-successful-enough tenure.
Georgia fits the "big season, big expectations" construct headline writers love to attach to a pressure cooker of a college football autumn. Florida doesn't, because the Gators have already won and then defended their East Division title. The restlessness in Gainesville exists in a different zip code relative to Georgia -- not because a huge year isn't expected, but because the Gators have actually achieved something in recent seasons.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky aren't in familiar territory. No, their coaches aren't sipping pina coladas while luxuriating in the canvas xanadu of a beachfront hammock, but their seats are less hot after making bowl games. VU's and UK's 2017 football seasons are open-ended curiosities more than dramatic encounters with destiny. They're hugely important seasons, but not in a way we've come to expect.
Missouri (from rock bottom) and South Carolina (from a more hopeful position) are trying to move the ball forward, but not in contexts which demand instant results from their coaches. Improvement is expected, but not The Great Leap Forward.
Georgia is the only program where that dramatic advancement is expected. (Florida doesn't fit the profile of a dramatic advancement because it has finished first in the East the past two seasons.)
This leaves Tennessee as the SEC East program in the most unusual and uncomfortable position.
The 2017 Vols are indeed facing a season where poor performance could mean the ouster of their head coach, but in many ways, this year is not the equivalent of what Georgia and Kirby Smart face. Tennessee's 2016 season is the much closer approximation of what 2017 Georgia is staring at.
Last year, Butch Jones had accumulated a considerable amount of talent which had been seasoned by previous campaigns. The time to take over the SEC East had arrived. The season was a referendum on Jones's coaching acumen, the short-term future of the program hanging in the balance. Jones held a favorable hand, but he did have to play his cards right.
After 12 games, everyone could see reality for what it was.
The problem in Knoxville: The University of Tennessee had to fill its chancellor and athletic director spots for the 2017-2018 academic year and its accompanying college sports cycle. Gaps in important places at a very specific point in time saved Jones's job for another season, but as 2016 gives way to 2017, the Vols aren't in a 2016 situation. They're in limbo, and their fans have to wonder what their leaders will do.
Beverly Davenport, the new chancellor at UT, recently chose John Currie as the school's new athletic director. Davenport and Currie are now linked as the leaders who will lead the Vols into the next decade.
Before the end of this year, it is likely Currie will make the most important decision of his tenure.
Yes, Jones has to do well to save his job this season, but it's as though his moment of truth has already come and gone. Georgia has more high-end talent, Florida gets to host his Vols, and Jones has had to fill vacancies on his coaching staff because others (such as former offensive coordinator Mike DeBord) made downward moves in the profession, an acknowledgment that 2016 didn't go well. It only seems like a matter of time before Jones is handed his walking papers.
This brings us to a complicated question Tennessee fans must wrestle with, a question sports fans have to be honest about when thrust into a difficult scenario: Is it in the Vols' best interest to be bad in 2017?
Think of the Week 16 NFL loss which knocked an 8-7 team out of the playoffs and got the mediocre coach fired, enabling a better coach to come in the next season.
Think of the NBA team which tanks late in the season to get the higher draft pick.
Think of the tennis player who loses early in a small tournament, thereby creating more than enough rest and recuperation time for the bigger tournaments on the schedule.
Losses constantly pave the path to victories in more important situations, and college football is not exempt from this dynamic. Will Muschamp at Florida and Gene Chizik at Auburn had to endure bad seasons in order for their programs to pull the plug and seek better replacements. Those replacements (Jim McElwain and Gus Malzahn) have not become college football rock stars, but they both enter 2017 with realistic hopes of 10-win seasons and New Year's Six bowl trips. Their programs aren't in great shape, but they could be so much worse.
Tennessee and Jones, like any other team and program, know what will definitely lead to another season together; what will definitely lead to a divorce; and what will put them in an in-between situation. The Vols need nine regular season wins or better for Jones to come back. Seven wins or fewer will definitely get him fired. Eight wins represent the in-between mark.
It cuts against an immediate instinct to want to lose, but let's be honest: Unless a nine-win season somehow nets a New Year's Six bowl (as it would have for UT last season had the Vols beaten Vanderbilt in Game 12), where is the long-term upside for the Vols in an eight- or nine-win campaign? Doing just barely well enough to not get a coach fired, but not nearly enough to claim any of college football's bigger prizes, won't give any Tennessee fan a sufficient return on his or her emotional (let alone financial) investment. A seven-win season and subsequent pink slip for Jones would move the ball forward in terms of:
A ) the school finding a much better coach;
B ) Currie being tested early in Knoxville, which has the added effect of providing a situation which will either prove or disprove his worth to the fan base.
It is helpful and clarifying to see public figures perform under pressure, which lets the larger community know whether they're up to the job or not. When the public accumulates instances of either success or failure, it can know where the program is headed. Adjustments (or lack thereof) then become easier to arrive at. Everyone might not be happy, but everyone can move forward on the same page...
... and everyone can at least hope that if the present moment isn't satisfying, change will come sooner rather than later.
The path to restoration in Knoxville might not be as linear as one might first think. That doesn't mean it's the path Vol fans should turn away from in 2017.