It didn’t take long for Tennessee Volunteers head coach Butch Jones and Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops to create a buzz around their new programs. Taking over a pair of fledgling SEC East teams, Stoops and Jones injected life into their fanbases by setting off to a scintillating start on the recruiting trail.
Before they had ever coached a down, both teams had spent some time atop the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings, and even now–the season having started–both teams rank among the Top 10 (with Tennessee sitting in second behind Alabama and Kentucky ranking seventh). However, while the recruiting start revived the pulse of a pair of otherwise lifeless programs, the real challenges are just now being faced for Butch Jones and Mark Stoops.
Entering Week Six of the college football season, Butch Jones’ Tennessee Volunteers are sitting at 3-2 (with a devastating losses to Oregon and Florida to go along with a nail-biting victory at home against lowly South Alabama) and the Kentucky Wildcats are 1-3 (with a loss to a Sun Belt school). And while, in the immediate wake of their hires, it seemed expected that there would be early struggles, the blistering start on the recruiting trail may have ballooned expectations in both Lexington and Knoxville.
In Kentucky, Mark Stoops faces nearly insurmountable odds. In modern history, Kentucky football has been a perennial doormat in the division and the conference, and the program is well behind when it comes to facilities and fan interest.
What Stoops has been able to do is sell the idea of starting something from scratch (think Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebels), and it has certainly piqued the interest of an otherwise aloof fanbase. However, at the same time, making such an unexpected surge through the recruiting rankings may have muddied the realities of the program.
Of course, that reality is that Kentucky won two football games in 2012, and the talent on their roster simply isn’t on par with anybody else in the conference. But, when fans see a man who can cast the program to recruits in a light that no other coach has been able to do at Kentucky, they find themselves grasping at the idea of a miraculous turnaround.
Similarly, Butch Jones inherited Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley’s mess at Tennessee, and while Jones finds himself with a more talented roster than Stoops at Kentucky, the reality of the situation is that Tennessee is still behind the majority of the conference from a skill standpoint.
But, once again, when fans see a recruiting class that sits behind only the Alabama Crimson Tide in the rankings, they want to buy into the idea of an immediate turnaround, forgetting that we’re still a full year away from seeing that influx of talent. However, unlike what Mark Stoops faces in Kentucky, Butch Jones is packing 90,000-100,000 fans into Neyland Stadium on a weekly basis, and they’re anything but aloof.
Instead, they’re heavily invested and so starved for a winner that they have the audacity to boo their starting quarterback five weeks into the season during a victory that put them at 3-2, which happens to be exactly where we all expected them to be. But while the vast majority of them understand that this is a process, a vocal few are already convinced that they’ve seen enough to know that Butch Jones isn’t the man for the job.
Unfortunately, the reality of coaching in the SEC means that the expectations themselves aren’t necessarily based in reality.
That being said, in this day and age, each of these coaches have about a three-year window to boost the talent level of their rosters and give their program a chance to compete. So now, the issue for Mark Stoops and Butch Jones is quite clear.
They’ve got to hold these talented recruiting classes together. They’ve got to move their seats back to the upright position and lock their tray tables in place for a turbulent year in the SEC, and they have to fight the war on two fronts.
First, they’ve got to show enough improvement over the course of the year to convince the fans that they’re capable of developing talent. And second, they’ve got to convince the recruits that they’ve secured commitments from (and the ones that they’re in the thick of the race for) that everything is going as according to plan.
That’s easier said than done, and inevitably there will be some attrition in both Kentucky and Tennessee’s recruiting classes because, after all, these are still 17-year old kids with 17-year old sensibilities. However, what both these programs must really combat is the negative recruiting that’s become so prevalent in the SEC.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, these two teams will be lucky to combine for four wins in the SEC this season, which means there will be at least 10 conference foes out there telling recruits, “You can’t win there, and I’ve got the box scores to prove it.”
Ultimately, the recruits that they’ve sold the program and the plan to will be the ones who wind up sticking it out, and as we see these classes close out, we’ll get an idea over what exactly Butch Jones and Mark Stoops are selling and just how good they are.
Regardless, holding these classes together will be absolutely paramount for both Jones and Stoops, as well as their respective programs. The first full recruiting class is often what defines a coach’s tenure at a school, and while both of these coaches got off to hot starts that fired up their fans, they’ve still got four months of battling to pull this thing together.
How they close will undoubtedly decide their fates.