Tennessee traveled to Nashville on Saturday and defeated Vanderbilt 56-0. Here are 10 things that stood out.
1.) No hangover
There was a lot of talk about a locker room incident prior to Tennessee’s 63-38 loss to South Carolina last week. Nothing has been confirmed; it’s merely speculation. But there was quite a bit of smoke for there not to be a little fire behind it. Whether the much-rumored Hendon Hooker vs. Jeremy Banks incident occurred is anyone’s guess. But this is the takeaway: Whatever that problem was didn’t linger.
And that’s a credit to Josh Heupel. Someone asked earlier this week if there was some concern that Tennessee might lose to Vanderbilt since Hooker wasn’t playing after tearing his ACL late in the loss to the Gamecocks. My response: Of course there is concern. It’s a road game against a Commodore team that has reeled off back-to-back wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 at some point this season (Kentucky and Florida), the Vols won’t have Hooker … and there’s the issue of team chemistry to be concerned about.
Clearly, those fears were misplaced. Every Tennessee fan remembers the 2016 season, when the Vols were firmly in the national championship conversation after wins over Florida and Georgia, and then just completely collapsed in what was the beginning of the end of the Butch Jones era. (For the record, UT lost to Vanderbilt that year, 45-34.) I think almost every Vol fan is enamored with Heupel, but I also think a lot of us were kind of on pause after last week’s game. We didn’t really know what to make of it. And now we’re all breathing a sigh of relief where Heupel is concerned.
2.) What might have been…
I speak only for myself, but I bet I’m speaking for a lot of other Tennessee fans, as well: UT’s dominance in today’s game is almost more depressing than if the Vols had come out and struggled against Vanderbilt. That’s weird, of course, but it makes you wonder more than ever what might have been.
Actually, you don’t have to wonder what might have been. If last week hadn’t happened, Tennessee would’ve sat back next week and watched LSU and Georgia while flipping those burgers that Dabo Swinney crowed about, knowing it was headed to the playoffs.
But it does make you wonder more than ever just what in the world happened last week. Did Banks not playing, for whatever reason, really make that much of a difference? It’s just mind-boggling. It was a completely different Tennessee team that was out there today.
3.) No hostile environment
Today’s game was a road game but it wasn’t really a road game. Tennessee fans packed out FirstBank Stadium, as they always do, and created a home field environment.
How much of a difference does that make? At this point, it’s a fair question. With the exception of the LSU game in Baton Rouge, Tennessee struggled in hostile environments this year. Pittsburgh? Fortunate to win in overtime. Georgia? Just a disastrous effort for the offense. South Carolina? A disastrous effort all the way around.
Who knows what the difference was at LSU. It was a noon start, sure, but Tiger fans were still plenty loud. Not as loud as Georgia, nor as loud as South Carolina. But loud. It’s weird how Tennessee has played in hostile environments vs. friendly environments.
4.) Defensive turnaround
Tennessee gave up 63 points to South Carolina last week. Seven days later, they shut out Vanderbilt. Who saw that coming?
Vandy doesn’t have a great offensive football team. The Commodores entered today’s game ranked No. 97 in the nation in total offense. But Tennessee doesn’t have a great defensive football team. Today, though, the Vols played like a great defensive team.
Tennessee limited Vanderbilt to 254 yards of offense. The Vols recorded 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Vandy was 3 of 17 on 3rd down (and 0 of 4 on 4th down). It was a spectacular effort by every measure.
With today’s result, the Vols become the only team besides Georgia to shut out Vanderbilt this season. It was Tennessee’s first shutout of Vanderbilt since 2003, which was also the last time the Vols shut out any SEC team, and the biggest win in the UT-Vandy series since 1994, when UT won 65-0.
Amazing, even without considering last week’s debacle. But once you’ve paused to consider that this UT defense didn’t even have a pulse against South Carolina last week, it’s just inexplicable.
5.) Impressive run game
I don’t even know the last time Tennessee rushed for as many yards as it did today, but I’ll bet it’s been a while. The Vols piled up 362 rushing yards against Vanderbilt, and had four touchdown runs of 50+ yards (50 yards, 52 yards, 80 yards and 83 yards). It was a spectacular effort by any measure, but even moreso when you consider how banged up UT was on the offensive line.
Jaylen Wright finished with 160 yards and averaged a whopping 32 yards per carry. Dylan Sampson had 131 yards and averaged 11 yards per carry. Jabari Small had 79 yards on 11 carries. It’s too bad he couldn’t have had another 21-yard carry at some point in the fourth quarter.
6.) Joe Milton is Joe Milton
All of us saw how impressive Joe Milton was in mop-up duty this season. All of us dared to hope that Milton, who looked very talented but also very inaccurate last season, had turned a corner while playing behind Hendon Hooker and was ready to be the Vols’ next great quarterback next season.
During the fourth quarter of last week, after Hooker went down with the injury, it became apparent that it was time to pump the brakes on those hopes. And today proved that.
So, here’s the thing: Every UT fan wants Milton to be successful. One of the Vols beat writers, Wes Rucker, said several times during today’s game that a lot of Vol fans want Milton to fail. That’s ridiculous. Nobody wants that. But you also have to be realistic. And, realistically, the Milton we saw today was one of the same Milton we saw last season.
Milton didn’t look terrible. But he was 11 of 21 for 147 yards and a touchdown, and struggled mightily on deep balls, which was also his problem last year. He had receivers streaking open deep all day long, and didn’t connect with any of them, save for the first deep ball to Jalin Hyatt.
Does he get a bit of a mulligan because of the rain? Yes. If he comes out in a bowl game in a few weeks and turns it around, I’ll be happy to eat my crow. But, right now, it doesn’t look like Joe Milton is a quarterback who can lead Tennessee to an SEC East championship next season.
Fortunately, though, it didn’t matter today and the Vols were dominant without a Hooker-like performance.
7.) No bowl game for Vandy
A lot of people said coming into today’s game that Tennessee didn’t have anything left to play for after having its playoff hopes dashed last week in Columbia. That wasn’t necessarily true. The Vols were playing for a 10-win season, something the program hasn’t accomplished in 18 years. But there was still a lot riding on this game — much moreso for Vandy than for Tennessee.
Vanderbilt spent much of this season as an afterthought in the SEC, but suddenly came alive the last couple of weeks, first beating Kentucky and then beating Florida. Suddenly the Commodores were sitting at 5-6 and set to host a Tennessee team that had taken it on the chin against South Carolina. Add in the fact that UT hasn’t exactly dominated this series since falling on hard times a decade and a half ago, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that Vandy might reach bowl eligibility with a win this week. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit even created a minor stir when he predicted earlier in the week that the Commodores would win.
Obviously that didn’t happen. Tennessee came out and played inspired football, looking like it very much had something to play for. And there will be no bowl game for Vandy. That’s what rivalry football is all about. If you’re a Tennessee player, you’re nearly as happy that you prevented the Commodores from reaching a bowl game as you are that you won the game.
And as a fan, admit it: Every time the folks in the Vandy press box cranked up canned music after a Tennessee touchdown, you hoped the Vols would score another touchdown just for spite.
8.) Good for Dee Williams
Coming into this season, most of us thought that Squirrel White should be Tennessee’s primary punt returner. And the explosive freshman has gotten some touches on special teams (including one today, which he returned for 20 yards). But Dee Williams has proven to be the guy who should be in that role, and he’s had a very good season.
The junior college transfer has been so close to breaking a punt return for a touchdown on several occasions, including at LSU and against Kentucky, two critical games.
Today he finally broke through with a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, putting the Vols up 21-0 at the time.
9.) Hooker should still be a Heisman front-runner
Hendon Hooker didn’t have a great game against South Carolina. But should that cause him to be written off as a Heisman candidate?
I don’t expect Hooker to be the Heisman winner. I’m not sure he’ll even be invited to New York as one of the five finalists (though it will be criminal if he isn’t). But this isn’t about whether he will win the Heisman, but whether he should.
I listened to ESPN commentators on the SEC Football Final tonight talk about how Southern Cal quarterback Caleb Williams should be the Heisman winner, simply as a matter of attrition — with Tennessee losing two games and C.J. Stroud’s Ohio State team losing to Michigan today.
Williams is a fantastic quarterback who has had a great season, but the same panel of commentators went on to talk about how Alabama quarterback Bryce Young — who won the award last year — should be in the conversation, despite his team losing twice.
Young had a beautiful game against Tennessee … but it was still a loss. And if Young, who has lost two games this season, is still in the conversation, it would be an absolute travesty to leave Hooker out of it.
Hooker completed 70% of his passes this season for 3,135 yards and 27 touchdowns with only two interceptions. His rating was 176. He also had 430 rushing yards and five more touchdowns on the ground, for 32 total touchdowns.
Williams completed 65% of his passes for 3,480 yards and 33 touchdowns with only three interceptions. His rating was 168 against weaker competition. He added 316 rushing yards and seven more touchdowns on the ground, for 40 total touchdowns.
Either one of them have an impressive resume. But simply because of the competition they faced — and how good they’ve looked — I would go with Hooker. Biased? Of course I am. But I think Hooker is the better QB of the two.
10.) Tennessee is the best two-loss team in America
I alluded to this earlier, but the thing that hurts most about the Vols’ 56-0 win over Vanderbilt is that they showed that they are one of the most dominant teams in college football.
It doesn’t really matter, because there are four undefeated or one-loss teams out there and those are the ones that will wind up in the College Football Playoff, barring something bizarre happening in conference championship games next week. But just for the sake of argument, Tennessee has the best resume of any two-loss team in America, and it’s a slap in the face for Alabama to be talked about as a potential playoff team instead of the Vols.
Tennessee slipped up mightily in Columbia last week. There’s no way to sugar-coat what we saw in the 25-point loss to South Carolina. But the Vols are still 10-2, they beat Alabama head-to-head, and they’re still the second-best team in the SEC, behind Georgia. They went on the road to crush an LSU team that until tonight’s loss to Texas A&M was still in the heart of the playoff conversation.
The playoff rankings going into conference championship week should look like this: 1.) Georgia, 2.) Michigan, 3.) TCU, 4.) Southern Cal, 5.) Tennessee, 6.) Ohio State.
There’s plenty of room to debate putting Tennessee ahead of Ohio State. I would do it simply because of the Vols’ strength of schedule and the fact that the Buckeyes were dominated at home. You can’t lose a game that badly at home and still be in the conversation. But, as I said, there’s room to debate that. One thing that shouldn’t be debatable: Alabama shouldn’t be ranked ahead of Tennessee.
Extra Point: Shuddup, Dabo
Dabo Swinney took a swipe at Tennessee after the Vols’ loss to South Carolina last week. Swinney, the Clemson coach, talked about UT getting ready to flip burgers during next week’s SEC Championship Game while waiting to find out which playoff game they’re going to, forgetting that they had to show up and play a game against South Carolina.
Why Swinney chose to open his mouth is a head-scratcher. Maybe it’s because Swinney has had a lot of success recruiting Tennessee’s high school bluechip recruits and understands that he risks losing those guys in the future if Josh Heupel continues to build this program in the right direction. More likely it’s because he was ticked that a one-loss Clemson team risked being left out of the playoff picture despite (potentially) winning the ACC championship, while a one-loss Tennessee team that didn’t win its conference was getting in.
Through his smack talk, it appears that Swinney also forgot that his own team had to show up and play South Carolina today. I’m not a fan of the Gamecocks’ brash-talking coach, Shane Beamer, but they just showed up and beat a Top 10 team for a second consecutive week. I guess Swinney should’ve focused more on South Carolina and less on Tennessee this week.