Tennessee is Tennessee again.
The Volunteers picked up scattered pieces from South Carolina Saturday, reassembled a new version of a powerhouse and absolutely destroyed Vanderbilt, 56-0, in wet and windy Nashville.
Victory No. 10 should earn a New Year’s Day bowl invitation. Ten is rare enough and certainly sounds good. Tennessee last had a 10-win regular season in 2003.
The Vols gained 513 yards of total offense, including a flurry of long runs that led to a school record 11.7 yards average per rush.
The defense attended. The Vols posted their first shutout of an SEC opponent since Vanderbilt fell, 48-0, in 2003. Eleven players made or helped on 13 stops behind the line of scrimmage,
Joe Milton was hit and miss but a satisfactory replacement at quarterback. He completed 11 of 21 for 147 yards and a touchdown to Walter Merrill. He overthrew some open receivers.
Milton seemed delighted to have Hendon Hooker as a security blanket.
“Amazing feeling to have him by my side.”
The ground attack was the smart part of the game plan. It was based on the weather. The Vols won the coin toss, took the ball for a change and scored in 55 seconds. Milton threw to Jalin Hyatt for 61 yards. He tripped and fell at the 3. Jabari Small got the touchdown.
Princeton Fant scored the second TD on a strong third effort from the 1 to cap a 75-yard drive.
Dee Williams returned a Vandy punt for 73 and a touchdown. It was 21-0 at halftime.
Vandy lost yards on a fourth-down attempt at midfield and Small answered with a 52-yard TD run. Vandy broke away on a fake punt, fumbled and set up a 50-yard TD run by Jaylen Wright. Milton’s pass to Merrill was next. It was 42-0 at the end of three.
Vandy gave up the ball on downs at the UT 17. On the next play, Wright fled the distance, 83, eighth longest touchdown run in UT history.
The unfortunate Commodores had to punt again. Tennessee scored again on the next play – 80 yards by Dylan Sampson. Fans argued whether the Vols were THAT fast or Vandy was THAT weary.
The Vols had four runs of 50 or more in the second half.
Tennessee’s defense, including Jeremy Banks, played well. Wesley Walker, Tamarion McDonald. Jaylen McCollough, Aaron Beasley and Roman Harrison had the best numbers.
Could be nobody noticed that the Vols were short-handed. Receivers Cedric Tillman and Bru McCoy, offensive tackle Gerald Mincey and defensive backs Trevon Flowers, Brandon Turnage and Doneiko Slaughter did not play, all apparently due to injuries.
Pity the previously hot Commodores. They had won a couple of SEC games and thought they had really improved. They were hoping to get bowl eligible.
Heupel did not seem surprised that his team bounced back from a week ago.
“Love the way that our kids responded and finished the regular season. It’s been a long time since Tennessee has won 10.
“It was important to finish the right way, and our guys did that. Defensively, they responded in a really positive way. They’re a prideful group and played a lot better football this time.
“I know there’s been a lot of talk outside our program about the culture inside our locker room. When I got here two years ago, nobody thought we’d win 10 by this point. There were 30-plus that left the program. This group chose to stay, and they bought in, even to me.
“They bought into the culture, the connection we were going to build, and they built it, competing together and then competing for one another. We’ve been far from perfect, and that starts with me. But I’ll tell you what: This group loves one another, and that’s why we’ve turned this program in the right direction. And the future is bright, and I’ll go to battle with these guys any day, anywhere.”
Heupel was asked what he saw from Banks, suspended last week.
“He was purposeful and wanted to play well.”
He didn’t have to be asked about Tennessee fans.
“I thank our fans. They were fantastic. They showed up in droves. When it was not the prettiest of weather, they stayed. We feel them. We appreciate them, man. They’ve been on this journey with us.”
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.