If anyone could be prepared for the emotional environment his team will enter Saturday at Missouri, it’s Tennessee coach Butch Jones. Believe it or not, this will be the third straight weekend that Jones’ Volunteers (6-4, 3-3 SEC) will face an opponent with either an interim or retiring head coach.
Tennessee edged South Carolina and interim coach Shawn Elliott two weekends ago and shut out North Texas and interim coach Mike Canales, 24-0, last Saturday. Now the Vols are preparing to visit Missouri (5-5, 1-5), which will play its final home game in retiring coach Gary Pinkel’s 15-year tenure.
Pinkel officially announced Monday that he would retire at season’s end after being treated for lymphoma earlier this year.
“It still comes down to playing the game,” Jones said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for all the coaches and what they’re going through. But at the end of the day, it still comes down to playing your best football game and the preparation that goes into it. And it’s the same every week.”
Pinkel is the most successful coach in Missouri history, posting a 118-71 record since arriving in Columbia. However, this has been a tumultuous season both on the field and off. Last Saturday’s 20-16 upset of BYU, with reports about Pinkel’s imminent retirement swirling, snapped a four-game losing streak.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Tigers rallied around Pinkel in such a fashion, considering how much he brought to their program.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Pinkel, not just as a coach, but also as a person and individual,” Jones said. “I remember being a young coach in the Mid-American Conference and he was the head coach at Toledo and you look at everywhere he’s been, he’s won. He’s done it his way.
“He’s developed programs and you always say, ‘When you leave a place, is it better where you leave it than where you found it?’ He’s left, obviously, Toledo, he set the foundation, the standard of excellence, and he’s done the same at Missouri. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and it’s an honor and a privilege to be coaching in this game with him.”
But that doesn’t mean Jones wants to help Missouri reach bowl eligibility in Pinkel’s final season. The Tigers still need another win against either Tennessee or Arkansas to reach the necessary six wins that would allow them to play in the postseason.
In order to force the Tigers into a must-win position next week against the Razorbacks, Jones said the Vols might need to do a better job of generating turnovers. Tennessee is tied for last in the SEC with 12 turnovers gained -- and against an opponent with a defense as good as Missouri’s, the field-position advantage that frequently accompanies a takeaway could be a major advantage.
“We have to generate turnovers,” Jones said. “These are going to come down to games with field position, taking care of the football, great play on special teams and not beating ourselves. And part of that is generating some momentum plays and generating some turnovers.”
Missouri is not particularly turnover-prone, but quarterbacks Maty Mauk and current starter Drew Lock have combined to toss 10 interceptions. That could be a factor to watch on Saturday as the Vols attempt to finish the season in strong fashion.
They have won three straight games after falling to 3-4 with a 19-14 loss to Alabama in late October. Now with six wins, they are bowl eligible at the earliest point for any Tennessee team since 2007 and have their sights set on finishing the regular season at 8-4.
“Our players are understanding the more you win, the more that’s at stake,” Jones said. “There’s a lot to play for, and being bowl eligible now, I think it’s the first time since ’07 this stage of the game. And those are all things in the building blocks of a football program, it’s evidence of how far we’ve come in a short period of time and it’s not propaganda, it’s real.”