Tennessee’s primary goal for the 2016 football season was to win the SEC East Division, and the Vols failed.
Does that mean the season was a failure?
Not until the No. 24-ranked Vols play Vanderbilt on Saturday night (7:30, SEC Network) in Nashville and find out their bowl destination.
If you thought UT’s season got bad last Saturday when Florida beat LSU 16-10 to clinch the SEC East, imagine if the Vols (8-3, 4-3 SEC) lose to Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) on Saturday night.
Tennessee’s football season would be crumbling, brick-by-brick. UT coach Butch Jones would take his team to a lower-tier bowl, like the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, or maybe even back to Nashville for the Music City Bowl.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, will settle for any bowl, and that’s what it’s playing for after a 38-17 win over Ole Miss last Saturday in Nashville. Bowl eligibility is on the line for the Commodores, who have lost 31 of the last 34 games to the Vols.
While the Vols celebrated a 63-37 victory over Missouri (3-8, 1-6) last Saturday, most of their fans had left Neyland Stadium feeling beaten and defeated.
Thanks, Florida. You did it again.
“They won the battle, but we won the war,” Florida cornerback Jalen Tabor said, referring to the Vols’ 38-28 win over the Gators on Sept. 24.
Actually, Florida won the war during the first half of the UT-Missouri game. The Gators’ game started at 1:30, UT’s at 3:30. Almost everyone in Neyland Stadium (except Missouri fans) was paying attention to the LSU-Florida game while watching UT-Missouri.
It was a strange day.
Tennessee took a 7-6 lead in the first quarter, when LSU trailed 16-10 in the fourth. UT fans chanted, “LSU, LSU!” The Tigers were driving for a potential winning touchdown. UT’s hopes for an East title were still alive.
Then came the last two plays, both four-and-goal at the 1-yard line. LSU ran twice. Florida made two stops.
Game over. Poof. Tennessee had no chance of winning the East.
By halftime, fans were filing out of Neyland Stadium en masse. It was getting dark and cold. Maybe a few fans were too chilly. Lots were miffed.
Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC East since 2007, and this was its best chance since then. The East hasn’t been this weak in years, maybe never. The Vols were favored by almost everyone to win the division.
All was going well, even after the 45-38 double-overtime loss at Texas A&M on Oct. 8 and the 49-10 loss to Alabama on Sept. 11 at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee had an open date before the Oct. 29 game at South Carolina, and favored by 13 points, left with a 24-21 loss. UT’s fate was left up to Florida. Not good.
After the Gators lost their second SEC game to Arkansas on Nov. 5, UT’s East chances hinged on Florida losing to either South Carolina or LSU. The Gators beat South Carolina 20-7 on Nov. 12, and we all know what happened last Saturday.
Jones wouldn’t admit last Saturday’s win was bittersweet with the East title going to Florida for the second consecutive year.
“You never heard me talk about it, never heard the players talk about it,” Jones said. “Our goal is to be 1-0 every week, and what happens, happens.
“Again, I’m not going to sit in here and complain. … Obviously, we have strong expectations for this football program, but right now, I’m going to talk about the win and talk about the seniors and how far our football (team) has come.”
Still, it was impossible to ignore the obvious.
Junior offensive lineman Brett Kendrick said seeing Florida win the East was tough.
“We’re disappointed about that, but we still have a lot to play for,” said Kendrick, who played at Christian Academy of Knoxville.
“We have a big game coming up next week versus Vanderbilt, which is a huge rival game. We’re playing for a good bowl game right now and a 10-win season. So, there’s still a lot left out there for us.
“We’re not going to hang our heads about it. I just actually found out what happened (in the Florida-LSU game) when I was sitting in there doing a radio interview, but I knew on the sideline that when they stopped showing the score up there something had gone wrong.
“We’re not going to hang our heads about it. We’ve had a great year. Coach Jones was really forcing us to stay focused on our game and control what we can control.”
For now, it’s in Nashville.
If the Vols beat Vanderbilt, they can still finish with the second-best record in the SEC behind Alabama, but would need some help. They would need Texas A&M to lose to LSU (Thursday night), Auburn to lose to Alabama, and Florida to lose to Florida State and to lose to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Tennessee’s most likely bowl destination is Florida for the Citrus Bowl (Dec. 31), the TaxSlayer Bowl (Dec. 31) or the Outback Bowl (Jan. 2), but the Outback isn’t likely since the Vols went there last year and to the TaxSlayer in 2014.
There is still an outside chance the Vols could go to the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl. A win there would make losing the East a lot less painful, and you could hardly call the season a failure.
3 matchups to watch
Webb vs. Vols front
Tennessee’s rush defense played like its ranking against Missouri – 13th in the SEC at 275 yards allowed per game – by giving up 420 yards on 67 carries (6.3-yard average). Missouri true freshman Damarea Crockett ran for 225 yards and a touchdown and junior Ish Witter gained 163 yards and scored two touchdowns.
Vanderbilt junior Ralph Webb is only 27 yards shy of the school’s career rushing record held by Zac Stacy (3,143 yards, 2009-12) and could surpass it on the opening drive against the Vols injury-plagued defense.
Not an excuse, says UT defensive back Micah Abernathy.
“I wouldn’t blame it on injuries because we have the next-up mentality,” Abernathy said. “It’s just the defense as a whole needs to fit the run plays. It’s nothing the (opposing) offense is doing. It’s all on us.”
Webb rushed for 123 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries against Ole Miss, which ranked 11th in the SEC in rush defense going into the game.
Webb, of Gainesville (Florida) High, has rushed for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
Dobbs vs. Vanderbilt ‘D’
Don’t expect Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs to put up the stats against Vanderbilt like he has the last two games against Kentucky and Missouri. (He was named the Walter Camp FBS National Offensive Player of the Week after Missouri win).
He’s had a hand in 10 touchdowns in those two games. Against Missouri, Dobbs rushed for a career-high 190 yards and two touchdowns – averaging 19 yards per carry – and threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-22 passing with no interceptions.
Vanderbilt’s defense is better than Kentucky and Missouri’s, which ranked 13th in the SEC in rush defense (225.3 yards allowed per game) and 12th in pass defense (239.1 yards per game).
Ole Miss freshman Shea Patterson threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-42 passing against Vanderbilt after throwing for 402 yards the previous week in a 29-28 win over then-No. 8 Texas A&M.
Vanderbilt had the season-high three sacks on Patterson and held Ole Miss to 5-of-18 on third-down conversions. The Commodores were seventh in the SEC in rush defense (171.9 yards allowed) and 11th in pass defense (233.2 yards) going into the Ole Miss game.
Cunningham vs. UT runners
Vanderbilt redshirt junior Zach Cunningham was an All-SEC first-team linebacker last year and was named to several pre-season All-America teams this year. Thus far, he’s played up to the billing.
Cunningham leads the SEC in tackles with 109 (59 solo, 50 assists) and his 16.5 tackles for loss is second in the SEC behind Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett’s 17.
His role will be huge in slowing down a Vols rushing offense that gained 376 yards against Kentucky and a season-high 386 against Missouri.
UT’s John Kelly rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown, and Alvin Kamara 57 yards and two TDs against Missouri.
Cunningham will spearhead a defense focused on stopping Dobbs, Kelly and Kamara.
5 things to watch
Vanderbilt sophomore Kyle Shurmur and his offense had a breakout game against Ole Miss, and that doesn’t bode well for a UT defense that gave up 740 total yards and 41 first downs against Missouri.
The Commodores’ 481 total yards were the most against an SEC opponent this season. They averaged 6.3 yards per play against Ole Miss, and their 38 points was the most against an SEC opponent during Derek Mason’s three-year tenure as head coach.
Shurmur completed 17-of-30 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
“I wouldn’t say surprised,” Mason said of his offense’s output. “I’d say exhilarated, excited. I wanted to see the floodgates open for these guys, so they can understand how good they can be.
“You can tell them until you’re blue in the face, but they’ve got to experience it. I think they experienced it.”
UT sophomore defensive end Jonathan Kongbo played some on the interior of the line for the first time against Missouri and put his athleticism on display with a 59-yard interception return for the Vols’ last touchdown.
“You saw a little bit of speed,” Jones said of Kongbo. “I thought that was really good, and the way our players reacted in reading the screen. They had heard a switch with the middle screen by the tight end earlier in the game, and (Kongbo) did a good job of retracing it and catching the ball. You saw a little bit of speed and burst at the end (of the return).”
Kongbo, rated the No. 1 junior college recruit out of Arizona Western Community College, had a tackle for loss against Missouri and has six tackles this season. His role increased with season ending injuries to linemen Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle and the dismissal of Danny O’Brien.
UT junior defensive end Derek Barnett could tie or break the school’s career sack record against Vanderbilt during the game in his hometown Nashville.
The two-time TSSAA Mr. Football winner (2012, ’13) from Brentwood Academy needs one sack to tie the UT record of 32 set by Reggie White (1980-83).
“I would be excited to catch that record back home, but I’d be more excited if we get the W,” Barnett said.
“Every time I step on the field that’s what I’m worried about, is winning, and if that’s me getting a sack, helping the team win, then good. Or, if that’s me just affecting the quarterback, getting no sacks and we still win, I’m fine with that.”
Barnett got his 31st career sack in the third quarter against Missouri. It was his 11th sack of the year. Barnett could be an early first-round NFL Draft pick in 2017 if he opts to forgo his senior year at UT.
Asked after the Missouri game if he’d played his final game at Neyland Stadium, Barnett said: “I haven’t thought about that yet. I haven’t made any decisions on what I am going to do. This was my final home game for this season.”
Barnett is the only player in SEC history with three seasons of 10 or more sacks.
Homecoming for the Vols
Jones has emphasized securing Midstate prospects since being hired at UT, thus the Vanderbilt game is big for recruiting. Barnett is one of many Vols from the Nashville area.
Tennessee’s top two receivers, Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings, are from Middle Tennessee. Malone (38 catches, 731 yards, nine touchdowns) played at Gallatin’s Station Camp High and Jennings (30 catches, 446 yards, seven touchdowns) played at Murfreesboro’s Blackman High.
How much orange?
Vanderbilt Stadium seats 40,550, and often there’s more UT orange and white than Vanderbilt black and gold when the Vols play the Commodores in Nashville.
Since 1983, UT is 15-1 against Vanderbilt in Nashville. After UT’s 41-18 loss at Vanderbilt on Nov. 17, 2012, UT coach Derek Dooley was fired the next day. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney coached the Vols in their last game of 2012, a 37-17 win over Kentucky.
Jones won’t get fired if he loses to Vanderbilt, but it would make for an uneasy bowl and offseason.
“We need the Orange to turn out in Nashville,” Jones said. “Again, it’s a rivalry game, and we have to work to make sure that we’re prepared, not just ready, and it starts with our week of preparation. They have a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence, and they’re a great, great home team.
“I have a lot of respect for them, so it’s going to take our best game in moving forward.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.