Mission accomplished – well, sort of.
Tennessee defeated Vanderbilt, 45-21. The score looks better than did the performance. There was no flow to the game, no knockout of an inferior foe.
Example: The Commodores managed to keep the football for almost 11 minutes on one 20-play drive. Think about that.
Vandy ran tough enough and delivered the most dramatic play, a Hail Mary with Volunteers all around. Other than that, the visitors were just the backdrop for Senior Day at Neyland Stadium. There was no threat of an upset. Attendance was announced as 77,349.
Now some positives: Theo Jackson recognized Vandy’s fifth play as something he had seen a dozen times in film study. He jumped the route, picked off the pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
Hendon Hooker was good but not great – 231 total yards (156 passing and two touchdowns, 75 running). The Hook has accumulated 26 TD passes.
Cedric Tillman did what he does, six catches for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small rushed for more than a 100 yards each. Small scored twice and Wright once. Linebackers Jeremy Banks and Aaron Beasley made a lot of stops.
Now the best part: This season went about as well as most could have hoped, given the preceding mess.
Tennessee 2021 football exceeded my and many others’ expectations. I thought the Vols would go 6-6 but I didn’t know how in the world they’d do it. That victory at Kentucky was a big deal. Cheers.
There were so many negatives this time last year, so much talent lost, uncertainties all around. January was one of the most turbulent months in UT football history.
This season was a very different story. The Vols lost games they were supposed to lose and two they could have won. The tank ran dry against Georgia and Alabama but Josh Heupel’s group never backed away from fights. This was a trademark. The Vols never quit. They never appeared disinterested. They didn’t do alibis. They were fun to watch. They looked like a team. They did dress strangely at times.
The quick-strike offense was sometimes awesome. The defensive front was generally crusty. Running backs were often ailing or just plain hurt. Linebackers never got a grip on rival quarterbacks who could run.
Four wins – Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama and Vanderbilt – were built into the schedule. Pitt, Missouri, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Kentucky were projected as toss-up games that could go either way.
Bowl eligibility was always a possibility but it was linked to what the UT administration would decide about self-imposed penalties. If the door was left open, the Vols had to win two of those 50/50 challenges. They won three, surprising back-to-back romps over the Tigers and Gamecocks and that dramatic last-possession stand when the chips were down in Lexington.
Beating the Wildcats made the season a success. Margins over Missouri and South Carolina were shocking.
Hooker was the definitive Volunteer. He made a wonderful difference. Tillman and Velus Jones were very exciting. I liked Matthew Butler’s brand of leadership, more pads than proclamations. I like Byron Young as a future star, at Tennessee or in the NFL. Tip your cap to Thedarrius SL Jackson.
There were disappointments. Best running back Tiyon Evans, injury plagued, finally threw in the towel. There were whispers of academic and financial difficulties. He entered the transfer portal while the Vols were preparing for Vandy – a bad look.
Juwan Mitchell transferred from Texas to be the answer at middle linebacker. He made eight tackles, suffered a shoulder injury, had surgery and missed the last eight games.
Setbacks fit summer forecasts. Interesting that 134 media elites at the SEC preview gathering predicted a fifth-place finish in the East division for the Volunteers. They were placed far behind the big boys, downhill from Kentucky and Missouri and but a fraction ahead of rebuilding South Carolina.
Two of three football magazines followed form. Phil Steele’s publication demoted the orange team to sixth. Cade Mays was the only Vol reporters knew. He was remembered from his Georgia days.
Interesting part 2: Scribes and broadcasters, many so-called insiders, listed Nick Saban and seven other possibilities for SEC coach of the year – but did not mention Heupel. We don’t know if that was because of a spelling problem, pronunciation uncertainty or total lack of awareness. We do know Josh did a pretty good job. If he can recruit, he may turn into a keeper.
This wrap-up victory over Vanderbilt was a given last summer. The Vols and Commodores were starting over with new coaches and different systems. Tennessee’s new coach was far ahead in experience and his concept was a matter of record: Train hard, play fast and gain an advantage when the defense can’t catch its breath.
What’s more, Tennessee had several better players and others destined for overachievement.
At the risk of ruining my reputation, I’ll admit Vandy improved late in the campaign.
Now comes the tricky part. Tennessee must win in recruiting while following the straight and narrow. Some in the sales business live in the gray zone. Not so, not now, for UT assistant coaches. Their marching orders are specific. Sign some really good prospects without any hint of cheating.
Depending on how good is the bowl opponent, the Vols could break the team record for scoring. The 1993 Vols hit 484. This team has 466.
Please hold your applause.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is email@example.com.