After being hammered 41-0 at home by Georgia, Butch Jones' dismissal at Tennessee feels imminent. Every Volunteers fan can tip their cap to the efforts Jones has made to prop up the program - and he has in various ways - but the on-field ceiling is more than evident at this point.
A reasonable standard for Tennessee football in this day and age should be semi-regular SEC title game appearances, and the Vols appear no closer to that than when Jones arrived - even though the talent level has been bolstered and there are plenty of resources available to win the wide-open division.
Lists of possible replacements for Jones are beginning to surface. Some are viable, others are borderline ludicrous and still others should be considered. Here's my breakdown.
FANTASY CANDIDATES: UT MIGHT TRY, BUT NOT HAPPENING
Chip Kelly, FA: I've been told repeatedly, even when Kelly was still coaching in the NFL, that he would not be interested in an SEC job. He doesn't want anything to do with the league's recruiting shark tank, particularly knowing that his recruiting base is centered on the West Coast. And he doesn't want anything to do with the fishbowl that comes along with the league. Kelly had his own fiefdom when he was in Eugene, Oregon; if he's returning to the college game, expect it to be a Pac-12 job with a similar level of attention and scrutiny. Even UCLA, in Los Angeles, comes with remarkably less pressure than a mid-tier SEC job like Arkansas or South Carolina. I'm inclined to think he'd land somewhere like Arizona State far sooner than Tennessee or Texas A&M.
Jon Gruden, FA: The Gru-mor mill will again churn, but if the MNF analyst returns to coaching, expect it to be in the NFL. Illustrating that: I was once told that Gruden, who was sort of interested in the Arkansas job at one point, asked Steve Spurrier about coaching on the college level. Gruden was left in shock by the amount of rules and regulations - practice hours, recruiting periods, etc. - and essentially swore he'd never coach in college. I have heard that Gruden was furious that ESPN let former broadcast partner Mike Tirico walk. But if he leaves the booth, expect it to be for a pro job.
Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Petrino is a hell of a college coach, as has been proven time and again, but this doesn't add up with the John Currie that I know. Too much baggage, too much clouding such a pivotal move for the first-year AD. This would feel like a mistake, even if Petrino is looking to leap from Louisville's sinking ship of an athletic department.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech: Certainly makes sense why Tennessee would want him. Fuente is excellent, a bright, rising star in the business. But Fuente and I talked when he got to Virginia Tech about fit. He told me that he loved the size of Blacksburg and didn't want to live or coach in a larger market, one with more media presence and scrutiny. He also seemed to hint that he wouldn't be interested in an SEC job, because of the undue pressures that come along with it. If he ever left Virginia Tech, it would likely be a job closer to home in Oklahoma - maybe Oklahoma State or TCU, where he worked for Gary Patterson.
Scott Frost, UCF: Frost took over an 0-12 program, got UCF to a bowl game in his first season and the 3-0 Knights look like legitimate AAC contenders in Year 2. That success makes Frost look like a no-brainer for his alma mater at Nebraska, especially with Mike Riley wobbling and a new AD coming in. Even if NU weren't immediately available, Frost might be in the same vein as Kelly, his former boss at Oregon; not everyone is interested in wading into the SEC's shark-infested waters.
Les Miles: Love Les, but if he couldn't get a sincere look at Houston, Baylor and Purdue, why on earth would Tennessee seriously consider him?
Bob Stoops, FA: Knowing Bob, the only college job he'd even consider coming out of retirement for is Notre Dame. And I have my doubts whether he'd take that. I think he's happy.
Dan Mullen, Miss. State: This is the name that has stuck with me for months. Some counter that Mullen could hold out for Notre Dame, should it open. That's fair. But in the event that it does not, Tennessee certainly adds up.
Privately, I've been told Mullen believed he should have gotten a longer look when Florida hired Jim McElwain and Georgia hired Kirby Smart. If I'm Tennessee, I'd love to have someone who has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to UF and UGA, someone who'd relish those wins in the way that, say, Spurrier felt about UGA and UT when he was at Florida. Mullen and his staff have shown the ability to develop mid-tier recruits; most years, his Mississippi State programs have been overachievers. Tennessee's fan base would crawl down the Cumberland Avenue Strip to be an overachiever just one year.
Mullen's temperament - confident-bordering-on-cocky - would play well; the heat in the kitchen wouldn't bother him, a bonus when compared to Jones' level of sensitivity. His sometimes boisterous personality might initially rankle some in the UT fan base, but if he can win over Starkville, Miss., he can win over Knoxville, Tenn. Winning football games sure helps, it turns out.
Mullen would love to get away from the SEC West schedule grind. It's no secret in Starkville that he's wanted out for the past couple of years. He was really close to the Oregon job. This is a far better fit than that one. Mullen's experience as a head coach in the SEC sets him apart from anyone else on this list.
As a massive added bonus, Mullen's wife, Megan, is a saint. She'd be an asset in any community, Knoxville included.
Jeff Brohm, Purdue: A Power 5 coach called me a year ago and told me he'd been watching some of Western Kentucky's film. He swore Brohm would be a star at the Power 5 level when he arrived. So far, that coach is looking prophetic; Purdue is already a relevant team in the Big Ten West, and that figures to only take hold as Brohm and his staff begin their recruiting efforts in earnest. In addition to owing Jones about $7 million, Brohm's buyout at Purdue is $5 million; I doubt that would be a deterrent if it's determined by Currie and others that he's that good. (He probably is.)
Mike Norvell, Memphis: Full disclosure: Norvell has been one of my favorite people in CFB for years, going back to his time as Arizona State's OC. He's genuine. He's bright. He's detail-oriented. Some coaches I know raved about the way that he handled and ran his camps last summer. He's mature beyond his 35 years, much the same way that Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is. Old souls. He's taken the baton from Fuente and done well at Memphis. Peers know that Norvell will move up soon to a Power 5 gig. He'd immediately win over Tennessee fans, players and administrators with his authenticity.
OFF-RADAR BUT WORTH CONSIDERING
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia: The angst between Holgorsen and WVU's brass has cooled compared to a year ago, but he still might be looking for an escape hatch. He's regarded in the profession as one of its brightest offensive minds, maybe the best. Holgorsen has recruited well in Florida and the Northeast, which would be a plus at Tennessee, but you wonder about his staff's learning curve in recruiting the South. But know this: His 49-32 record represents overachieving at WVU. Many of the program's fans think the job should be as easy as it was in the Big East, but that's ridiculous. In the Big 12, geographically separated from the rest of the league, it's a tough gig. He's done well.
Kyle Whittingham, Utah: Not often discussed or considered for other jobs, but the guy does a damn-good job. (The Utes are 4-0.) Developing players and overachieving, Whittingham is essentially Pac-12 Dan Mullen. Is he a "West Coast guy," considering his recruiting base? Perhaps. But his teams' identities - toughness and physicality up front - would play anywhere. If he can elevate Utah from a Group of 5 to a successful Pac-12 South program, why couldn't Whittingham make Tennessee a consistent force in the SEC East?
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State: If he was interested once, would he be again? Gundy, now 50, feels more and more likely to be a lifer at his alma mater in Stillwater. Tennessee would be more than wise to kick the tires, though.
Chad Morris, SMU: It took some time given the way he found the program, but Morris finally has the Ponies (currently 4-1) playing well in the American. I'd expect Morris to be one of the top choices at Texas A&M, his alma mater, but it doesn't mean Tennessee shouldn't pursue him. Morris has many of the same head-coaching philosophies and mannerisms that Dabo Swinney, his former boss at Clemson, has leveraged to excel. He'd be a great fit in Knoxville.
Neal Brown, Troy: Brown's profile was already on the rise, but last week's win at LSU significantly elevated it. (Folks forget that the Trojans also pushed Clemson to the brink in 2016.) Troy wasn't in great shape when Brown took over, and he's made it relevant in a hurry. Some coaches envision the former Texas Tech assistant returning to the Big 12, but Brown would likely succeed in any league.
Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State: App doesn't have as strong of a team this year as in past seasons - including 2016, when the Mountaineers nearly upset the Vols at Neyland Stadium. But Satterfield's ability to elevate the program from the FCS level to a regular bowl participant is extremely impressive. Most expect that the North Carolina Triangle-area native would be in line for a gig like N.C. State, should it open.
Jason Candle, Toledo: Coaches and agents tell me that Candle, who is 13-5 at Toledo, will be a Power 5 success. This one may not rev up the fan base, especially those fearing it's another version of Jones, but someone will eventually pluck Candle and they'll probably be very happy that they did.
Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic: Just kiddin'.
DOESN'T REALLY ADD UP, FOR NOW
Tee Martin, USC offensive coordinator: I'm a big Tee Martin fan, as a human and as a coach, but this would be an extremely risky move by Currie and UT. Ideally, you'd like to see Martin cut his teeth somewhere as a head coach before taking on a job like Tennessee. I do think Martin will be a head coach next season, but I think it'll be at South Alabama, in his hometown of Mobile. That would be a great fit and step for Martin, a place where he can further prepare himself for a Power 5 job.
Jim Bob Cooter, Detroit OC: The former UT quarterback has blossomed as an NFL play-caller, and JBC does spend a decent amount of time in Nashville. But Cooter seems on track to soon become an NFL head coach.