The Butch Jones era at Tennessee ended on Sunday, a couple games short of five complete seasons in Knoxville.
The move had long been expected, given the team's struggles this year, and Tennessee made it official a day after a 50-17 loss at Missouri. The defeat dropped the Volunteers to 4-6 overall and 0-6 in the SEC this season, and it means that Jones will leave Tennessee with a 34-27 record.
Former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke, the Vols' defensive line coach, will serve as interim head coach for the rest of the season, which includes home games against LSU and Vanderbilt. Tennessee would have to win both games to reach bowl eligibility.
Why Tennessee made a change
Although Jones went 5-7 in his debut season in 2013, early returns were positive. After the departure of Phillip Fulmer following the 2008 season, Lane Kiffin spent only one season as his replacement before leaving for USC, and Derek Dooley went 15-21 in three seasons. With Tennessee watching as rivals Alabama and Florida claimed national championships, it brought in Jones to replenish the program's talent base. He did that, signing recruiting classes that ranked seventh in 2014, fourth in 2015 and 14th in 2016, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
Jones improved the Vols each of his first few seasons, from 5-7 to 7-6 to 9-4. Last season was supposed to be the breakthrough, as the Vols returned a veteran team that earned No. 9 preseason AP ranking even though the program hadn't finished a season in the top 10 since 2001. The 2016 Vols won a string of close games early, but a 5-0 start turned into a 9-4 season with a 4-4 record in SEC play that allowed Florida to win the division again.
With much of that experience gone, this year's team has struggled, including heartbreaking losses to Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina and blowout losses to Georgia, Missouri and Alabama. The offense ranks 123rd in yards per play, and the defense ranks 91st.
"Unfortunately, we are not where we need to be competitively," athletic director John Currie said in a university release. "For that reason, I have asked Coach Jones to step down as head football coach. I know Coach Jones will be successful moving forward, and we wish him all the best in his future endeavors."
Prior to getting the Tennessee job, Jones replaced Brian Kelly at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati, going 27-13 with the Chippewas and 23-14 with the Bearcats. Although Jones improved on-field play for a while at Tennessee, his personality clashed at times with a fan base that has been hungry to return to the top of the SEC. The Vols have not won a conference championship since 1998, and they have not played in the SEC title game since 2007.
What's next for the Vols
Currie was hired from Kansas State in February and will now be responsible for making an impact football hire in his first year at Tennessee. It will be a competitive year on the coaching market, too, as Florida and Ole Miss are already open in the SEC, with more changes potentially looming inside and outside the conference.
Big names like Jon Gruden and Chip Kelly will be mentioned, as will other Power Five coaches like Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy (who flirted with the Tennessee job when Jones was hired), Iowa State's Matt Campbell (who has a sizable buyout and isn't likely to leave quickly) and Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente (who had a terrific run at Memphis). Tennessee could also be competing with Florida, which has some advantages over Tennessee (especially recruiting territory), for coaches like UCF's Scott Frost and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen.
Some big names can't be dismissed, but who are realistic potential candidates to replace Jones?
- Mullen. Although the Tennessee coach will have to deal with Alabama every season because of the cross-division rivalry, there's a Nick Saban-created ceiling in the SEC West standings that hasn't existed in the East. Mullen has done a terrific job at Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs can only rise so high in the SEC West. A switch to a marquee job in the East wouldn't be shocking.
- Frost. The biggest rising star among Group of Five coaches, Frost is likely to be a top candidate at Florida and would surely be a top candidate at Nebraska, his alma mater, if that job opens. If he decides to move after just two years at UCF, which is undefeated, Tennessee would be unlikely to be at the top of the list, but it's a big enough job that the fit would make some sense.
- Mike Norvell, Memphis. Like Frost, Norvell is in only his second season as a head coach at an American Athletic Conference school. The 36-year-old Norvell was previously Arizona State's offensive coordinator, and he's 16-6 thus far at Memphis. That includes an 8-1 record this season, with the Tigers owning a win over UCLA and a top-25 ranking. A strong offensive mind with recruiting ties in the area, Norvell could be the most realistic fit.
- Jeff Brohm, Purdue. Brohm is unlikely to be a one-and-done at Purdue, where he's 4-6 in his debut season, having made obvious strides in a tough rebuilding job. One of the sport's finest offensive minds, Brohm went 30-10 in three seasons at Western Kentucky with prolific offenses.
- Neal Brown, Troy. After a rebuilding debut, Brown went 10-3 last season and is 8-2 this season with a win at LSU. The 37-year-old Brown was previously the offensive coordinator at Kentucky and Texas Tech and appears destined to rise through the coaching ranks toward the SEC.
- Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator. Martin was the Volunteers' quarterback the last time they won the national title and SEC title in 1998. He's been on the USC staff since 2012. Despite the alma mater connection, the Vols might be wary of taking a risk on someone who hasn't been a head coach, but -- like Frost and Nebraska -- Martin is going to be mentioned every time Tennessee has an opening in the next 20 years.
- Jim Bob Cooter, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator. The 33-year-old ex-Tennessee backup quarterback is a rising star in the NFL.
- Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama defensive coordinator. Saban assistants are obligated to be mentioned for SEC head coach openings, and this is a more realistic than Kiffin making a return to Knoxville.
Whoever lands the Tennessee job will be charged with a few goals: 1) getting back to the SEC championship game, 2) beating Saban for the first time and 3) keeping pace with East rivals Georgia and Florida, who will both have relatively new coaches, too.