- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Butch Jones admittedly hasn’t gotten much sleep since Tennessee’s breakthrough 23-21 victory over then-No. 11 South Carolina last weekend.
But, then, when does he ever get much sleep?
On average, the Vols’ first-year coach snoozes about four hours a night, but the sleep monitor he wears tells him that only 2&189; of those hours are what you would call deep sleep.
He also keeps a notepad beside his bed that has been known to liven things up in the wee hours of the morning at the Jones household.
“Sometimes, some of your best ideas come when you’re lying there at night, and you might not remember all of them the next morning,” Jones explained. “So I’ll get up and start writing them down until my wife yells at me to get my butt back to bed.”
And the next thing you know, the dog starts barking.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day,” Jones said with a grin. His energy and passion were embraced by a win-starved Tennessee fan base a long time ago.
But last Saturday, he gave Rocky Toppers more than just hope. He gave them something tangible to cling to: the Vols’ first victory over a nationally ranked opponent after 19 consecutive defeats.
“It’s just one victory, but it gives evidence to what we’re doing,” said Jones, who took over a reeling program that had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons. “We have great confidence in what we do, and we have great people here. It’s a process. Everyone wants things corrected overnight, and I’m the worst one about that. But things take time to do it right.
“We’re still focusing on the process.”
That process becomes a lot easier when you’re beating teams in your division that have been beating up on you. The Vols were close to some of these victories under former coach Derek Dooley. They took LSU to the wire three years ago and Georgia and South Carolina to the wire last year. But there also were a ton of embarrassing losses along the way.
“We’ve been in a lot of situations like that before, but we’re finally over that hump,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Marlon Walls, who was recruited by Phillip Fulmer and has played for three head coaches at Tennessee.
“We knew it was coming with Coach Jones, but it’s just exciting to see it happen. Our love for Coach Jones and our love for each other pushed us through, and it’s going to keep pushing us through.”
The Vols (4-3, 1-2 SEC) don’t have any choice but to keep pushing. Their schedule is brutal. They get No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., this Saturday and then No. 5 Missouri in Columbia, Mo., on Nov. 2. After that, No. 11 Auburn comes to town.
That completes a stretch of seven nationally ranked foes in nine weeks.
“That’s the world of college football, the life of being in the SEC,” Jones said. “You’ve never arrived, and we still have to take major steps in moving forward.”
The Vols, who are playing a wealth of younger players, simply don’t measure up talentwise to the elite teams in the SEC. Jones and his staff are feverishly working on that. They’re currently No. 3 nationally in ESPN’s recruiting rankings for the 2014 class, trailing only Alabama and Florida State.
So on the recruiting trail, Jones is obviously making inroads, which is the only way Tennessee is going to climb back into championship contention in this league.
But to attract enough of those players, you’ve got to get it done on the field, and that’s where the Vols have made some of their biggest strides.
In just about all the statistical categories that matter, Tennessee is ahead of last season’s pace through Week 8.
The Vols are running the ball better (201.7 yards per game), playing better defense (4.5 fewer points per game), committing fewer penalties, playing better red zone defense, winning the turnover battle and playing as well on special teams as they have in a long time.
In fact, senior kicker/punter Michael Palardy, who kicked the game-winning field goal against South Carolina, has mirrored Tennessee’s turnaround in a lot ways. He’s having his best season after some earlier struggles and has been an invaluable weapon for the Vols.
As much as anything, Jones has instilled a confidence in this program that had been sorely lacking, and even after the 59-14 shellacking at Oregon the third week of the season, that confidence hasn't wavered.
The trip to Alabama will further put that confidence to the test. The Vols have lost six in a row to the Crimson Tide and haven’t scored more than 13 points in any of the past five meetings between these two old rivals.
“We’re a different football team,” said junior quarterback Justin Worley, who’s played his best football the past two games against South Carolina and Georgia. “At Oregon, we didn’t show up. At Florida, we were just up and down.
“Our consistency and our confidence level are both a lot better than they were in those first two road games.”
As happy as Jones was for the seniors in this program, to see them get such a fulfilling win last week after so much misery the past few seasons, he rode his team in practice this week as hard as he ever has.
He knows what lies ahead.
“The more you win, the more that’s at stake,” Jones said. “The more you win, the more that’s expected, and this week becomes even bigger. The other thing is you work your butt off to be playing meaningful games into October and November, and from here on out, we’re going to be playing meaningful games.
“That’s what you work toward, and you have to embrace it. This team has.”
It’s also a team that clearly believes in its head coach.
“Coach Jones pushes you. He challenges you, and he’s not afraid to call you out,” sophomore receiver Pig Howard said. “We’ve all heard it, but the thing we all know is that he’s in it for us.
“He’s pushing himself harder than he is anybody, and you don’t want to let somebody like that down.”