Football is a slightly more aggressive version of chess, where head coaches are expected understand the direction a game is headed several plays before it reaches its final destination, similar to how a Grandmaster in chess constantly calculates not only his moves, but the moves of his opponents.
The legendary Bobby Fischer exemplified this rare gift at arguably the highest level chess has ever known. His infamous trap — creatively titled the Bobby Fischer Trap — features a subtle move that quickly transforms into a devastating blow. Tactics of this caliber are why Fischer is a chess immortal, and why his mind was a time machine.
Once his trap was set, a tsunami of chess brilliancy ensued, leaving Fischer’s opponents paralyzed.
Fischer’s Trap is brilliant not because of a deceptive single move, but because Fischer understood every singular move served a larger purpose to the bigger picture. And that bigger picture is winning.
There aren’t many Bobby Fischer-esque figures floating around in the college football coaching world, even though every coach has the same mission.
Perhaps no coach is in more of a win-now mode than Butch Jones, who despite contributing positively to Tennessee’s rebuild, hasn’t always coached with a chess mentality. Instead, the embattled fifth-year coach has — at times — showcased a lack of forward thinking.
Here are three scenarios where Butch was playing more checkers than chess.
Scenario No. 1
Your team scores a touchdown on the road to go up 26-14 in the third quarter. If you elect to go with the PAT attempt, the score becomes 27-14, assuming the kicker converts. The opposing team reels off two touchdowns and go up 28-27. However, there’s still enough time for your team to drive down the field and attempt a game-winning field goal to escape with a 30-28 victory. Or, you can attempt a 2-point conversion. Assuming the conversion is successful, the score becomes 28-14. Even if the opposing team scores two touchdowns, the game is still tied at 28, so even if you fail on the game-winning field goal attempt, there’s still overtime. If the conversion fails, the score becomes 26-14. The opposing team scores two touchdowns and can either go up by the score of 29-26 (if they convert on a 2-point conversion), 28-26 (if they simply kick the extra point) or 27-26 (if they fail on the 2-point conversion). You still have an opportunity to kick a field goal, which will either win the game or tie the game, assuming it’s made.
Do you kick the extra point or go for two?
Butch elected to kick the extra point, and the rest is history. Florida scored two late touchdowns to go up 28-27, Aaron Medley barely missed a 57-yard game-winning field goal attempt, and Tennessee’s losing streak to the Gators increased to 11.
Deep into the second half, Butch should’ve elected to go for 2 points because all the aforementioned scenarios gave the Vols, at worst, a chance for overtime.
Butch also made another tactical error. With his team well outside of field goal range, the Vols faced a 1st & 15 with the clock stopped and two timeouts. Inexplicably, Butch used one of the timeouts, thus decreasing the chances of attaining a short field-goal attempt.
Scenario No. 2
You’re trailing 24-21 with 5 seconds remaining in the game. Earlier in the month, your team had completed a Hail Mary to win in thrilling fashion. You can still play for overtime by tying the game at 24 with a field goal, but the kick is 58 yards. Heading into the game, your kicker had made only 6-of-20 field goal attempts from 40 yards or further in his career, including an 0-for-4 clip from 50 yards out.
Do you attempt the Hail Mary or go for the field goal?
Butch elected to go for the tie, which Medley didn’t come close to nailing. Although a Hail Mary is a low-percentage play, any percent — .01 percent for example — is larger than zero.
Scenario No. 3
You’re trailing 45-34 with under 2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter on the road. You face a fourth-down situation, but are well into field goal range. Initially, you have 3 timeouts in your back pocket. The options are simple: Save the three timeouts by sprinting the field-goal unit onto the field and attempt to bring the score to within 8 points, thus allowing you to burn all 3 timeouts on your opponent’s next possession so your offense can get the ball with as much time left as possible. Or you can use a timeout and either A) Kick a field goal, but only be able to stop the clock twice on your opponent’s possession, which means an onside kick might be in play, which also means that if your team doesn’t recover the onside kick the opponent can pin your offense deep into your territory, making a touchdown nearly impossible or B) Go for the first down, knowing that failing to convert means the game is over.
Do you save the timeout, or do you use a timeout?
This scenario takes the most thinking. Butch elected to call a timeout and go for the first down, which Alvin Kamara infamously failed to gain.
The wiser move would’ve been to rush the FG unit onto the field, hopefully make the field goal, kick the ball off, use all three timeouts, and assuming Vanderbilt goes three-and-out, get decent field position since the Commodores are punting from their end of the field.
What the timeout does is put the Vols in a complete bind because if Vanderbilt gets the ball back after a Tennessee score, they have an entire play clock to drain. As I said before, this forces Tennessee to get desperate, which means an onside kick attempt is likely. If Vandy recovers, they force the Vols to burn two timeouts and pin them deep after burning an entire play clock.
Furthermore, the fact that Butch had to use a timeout for a fourth-down play in this situation proves he didn’t play this scenario in his head. If Tennessee is trailing by a touchdown or less, sure, call a timeout. But down by two scores, there has to be a go-to fourth-down play. There clearly wasn’t and the Vols suffered because of it.
Taking a different path in all three scenarios didn’t guarantee a victory for Tennessee, but if each scenario was played out before they transpired, Tennessee might be heading into 2017 fresh off back-to-back SEC East crowns. Instead, Butch procrastinated on all three decisions and his team paid price.
Butch has effectively used the media as his chess pieces. Now it’s time to treat the field like a chess board.