Well, it certainly wasn’t the best performance Tennessee has had on their now five game winning streak, but today’s 28-10 victory over a bad Vanderbilt team has given the Vols their first winning record in conference play since 2015, and will more than likely propel them to their first New Year’s Day Bowl Game since then also.
Eric Gray was the best player on the field today, and his rushing performance will put him inside the Top 5 on many of the Vol record lists. His 94 yard rushing TD was the longest by any Tennessee player since Kelsey Finch’s 99 yard scamper against Florida in 1977, and his 246 yards are the fifth most by any Vol in a single game in the history of the program. Gray had shown flashes of explosiveness throughout the year, but he was very clearly the third back on the roster… until today. He finished the day with three rushing TDs and almost ten yards per carry.
Jarrett Guarantano was off today, and had by far his worst game of the Tennessee winning streak, completing only 6 of his 17 pass attempts. He started the game 0 for 7 and threw an interception that set up Vanderbilt’s early field goal. Of course, JG was still able to convert his six completions into 120 yards and a TD.
Let’s be honest, the pouring rain and horrible weather conditions were a factor in limiting the passing game today. Vanderbilt’s two quarterbacks completed less than 50% of their throws also, and both teams combined for only 289 passing yards.
The best thing about Tennessee today was how they were able to dominate the game in the trenches. They couldn’t throw the ball a lick and were still able to blow Vandy off the ball on their way to 297 rushing yards and an 18 point win. The Vol defense held the Commodores to less than 300 yards of offense, and finished off their regular season by only allowing 71 points over the final five weeks (or 14.2 points per game. For reference, Florida, the second ranked defense in the SEC, only allows 14.2 points per game this season. So they’ve basically been on the level of the second ranked defense in their conference for the last five weeks.)
Most importantly, the Vols snapped their three game losing streak to Vanderbilt, something that never should’ve happened in the first place, and is further evidence of just how far this program had fallen over the last couple of years. Before last season, the Commodores hadn’t taken three in a row in this “rivalry” since 1926. I’m pretty sure that’s the year my Old Man was born. Or at least that’s what I thought he said when I asked him how old he was once. Again, he had a mouthful of Cheetos, so he could’ve said 1886 or 1962 or anything.
For those of you that wanted a blowout, a 50 point win, well, I’m sorry, but that was never going to happen today. The spread was 23.5 points, which was far too high considering the Vols have only beaten Vanderbilt by that many points twice since 2006. And while Tennessee has made a really nice turnaround this year, their largest margin of victory of this season against an FBS opponent was only 23 points. They won their last two games, at Kentucky and at Missouri, by a combined total of eight points. This isn’t, and never has been, a team that blows people out. Plus, the weather was terrible today, which severely limited their ability to get big plays and really open it up. They won by three possessions today. It's impossible for me to be upset about that.
Tennessee won’t learn their bowl fate until next Sunday, but with their winning conference record and hot finish to the season, I’d be shocked if they were anywhere other than a New Year’s Day Bowl. They’ll be in either the Gator Bowl, the Outback Bowl, or the Capital One Bowl against some quality Big Ten opponent, and will be going for their first 8 win season since 2016. No one would’ve predicted that after they blew the BYU game.
Crazy stat: today was the first time in his 16 conference games that Jeremy Pruitt was favored. He’s a not bad 7-9 in those 16 conference games, which is even more impressive if you remember (and I’m sure you all do) that this team was 0-8 in the SEC in 2017, the year before he arrived in Knoxville.
Pruitt is in the good graces of the fanbase now. Whether he remains there will depend on how they do against Alabama, Florida, and Georgia next season. But for now, let’s celebrate this season, and carry the fight to whoever they get in their bowl game.