KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones is in his 18th month as Tennessee's football coach.
His first season with the Volunteers ended 5-7 and short of a bowl game and included an upset of South Carolina for the program's first win against a ranked opponent since 2009.
Off the field, Jones has helped Tennessee navigate its way out of an Academic Progress Rate mess that was dangerously close to incurring similar penalties to the ones levied on Oklahoma State this week.
The Vols continue to recruit well and have followed up a top-five 2014 class with a solid start to 2015.
It looks like Jones has Tennessee, a program that's had six losing seasons since 2004, heading in the right direction, and the fan base seems to be believing, based on the crowd of more than 68,000 that showed up for a practice masquerading as the Orange and White Game and the impressive turnouts for three Big Orange Caravan stops so far.
What Jones' teams do on the field always will be the truest barometer, and his second season provides a chance for the program to take its next step.
"The foundation, the expectations, the standards, the culture, the environment -- that's all in place," he told the Times Free Press last week. "But now we don't have the luxury of having a lot of individuals that have played through that first year now [in their] second year.
"We're going to be playing a lot of individuals that this is their first time, this is their first go-around of experiencing a full-time college football season and an academic workload. Again, it's developing our style of play almost all over again. That's why we're going to rely on our older players developing our identity as a football team.
"I think the big thing is just continuing to stay the course, and with being such a young football team we have to focus on the moment. We can't get ahead of ourselves. We must be a better football team in November than we were in September, and we have to show steady progress week in and week out. Yeah, we're going to be challenged."
In 2013, Tennessee had to replace heavy production losses at quarterback, receiver and tight end and improve a defense that in 2012 recorded the worst statistical season in the program's history.
The Vols upset the Gamecocks two weeks after nearly knocking off Georgia, and a play here or there in that overtime loss to the Bulldogs and another last-minute loss to Vanderbilt might have swung Tennessee's record to 7-5 and a bowl berth. On the flip side, Tennessee needed an incredible Marquez North catch to beat South Carolina and barely held off South Alabama.
Reaching six wins in 2014 again figures to be a challenge.
Tennessee has just 12 seniors, and more than half the players will be in their first or second year in the program. The Vols will be one of the youngest teams in the Southeastern Conference and must replace both the entire offensive and defensive lines. A touted 2014 signing class figures to make an immediate impact, but it won't come without some mistakes and growing pains.
The schedule is less forgiving than it was last season.
"Utah State," Jones said of Tennessee's season-opening opponent, "is an experienced football team and an experienced football program -- with a first-round draft choice [Chuckie Keeton] at quarterback -- that's used to winning. Arkansas State, the same thing. Then we go in and play arguably the No. 1 team in the country at their place in Oklahoma."
And that's before the Vols get into the SEC.
An early-October visit from Florida, coming off a 4-8 season of its own, figures to be an important swing game, and Tennessee closes the season with visits from Kentucky and Missouri before a trip to Vanderbilt.
Jones is confident the Vols are trending upward and believes they will return to contender status in the SEC under his watch, but he's also realistic about the upcoming season.
"We're going to have to grow up in a hurry," he said. "There's going to be teaching lessons each and every day, but I think it's also invigorating. I think it's exciting, but we have to show extreme patience, we have to have great focus and be able to persevere and really stay focused at the process and at the end result of what we're looking for. I think that's the big thing.
"I think it's going to challenge the patience of our fan base. It's going to challenge the patience of me, first and foremost, because I want it right now. But we're not just 'Add water.' We're not ready-made. We're extremely young. But I'm excited."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...