Take a minute to consider our achievement.
With the win Saturday, the Vols are 7-5 in Lane Kiffin's first season. Based on the majority of projections, the Vols will not only play in a bowl game after missing one last season, but play in a traditional January 1 bowl, a right reserved for a select few. The Vols are second in the SEC East, two spots higher than preseason projections. And while 7-5 is not a number we're traditionally proud of, this year it is a number that looks better on closer examination - not just because it's Lane Kiffin's first year, but because of how we got there.
The Depth of The SEC
This isn't the best SEC of all-time, but it might be the deepest. In the modern/divisional era, there have been several years where the league placed a bunch of teams in the Top 10 (3 in the Top 7 in 2001), the Top 25 (7 teams ranked in the final AP poll in 1999), or demonstrated their dominance in bowl games (undefeated before Nebraska shredded Tennessee in 1997).
But top to bottom, has there ever been a better year for the SEC?Detractors would point out that a league that has six teams at 7-5 is, by definition, average. But the SEC counters that argument behind and before. At the top are the two best teams in the country, who will play a second chapter of Armageddon Saturday in Atlanta. And aside from our friends in Nashville, who live only to enhance the conference's GPA, there are no bad teams in this league.
The SEC has 10 bowl eligible teams, a conference record. You could argue that the only reason it's not 11 is that Mississippi State scheduled both Georgia Tech and Houston in their non-conference. The Big 12 has 9 bowl eligible teams, but three of them are 6-6, while all of the SEC's bowl eligible teams are 7-5 or better. No other conference has more than 7.
There was no greater evidence of the SEC's dominance than what 7-5 Georgia and 7-5 South Carolina did to the two teams that will play for the ACC Championship on Saturday, bookending the ACC/SEC matchups with what Alabama did to Virginia Tech thirteen weeks ago. Watch this league in bowl games - we're going to put up an incredibly strong win-loss record, en route to our fourth straight National Championship.
When fighting amongst ourselves, the depth was just as evident, even at the top. #1 Florida and #2 Alabama went an incredibly impressive 16-0 combined in SEC play, but half of those wins came in games decided by 10 points or less. Which brings the point home to us:
Who Tennessee Beat & Who Beat Tennessee
We said we would be satisfied with 8-4. But when we lost to UCLA and Jonathan Crompton looked like Jonathan Crompton, it felt like everything took a giant step backward. It remains the game that two consecutive coaching staffs would most like to have back, and could have been the beginning of another long year.
But as this team has come together, we've watched them grow in both talent and confidence. Of the other four Vol losses, two can be directly or indirectly tied to the kicking game (Alabama and Auburn), and two were against the two best teams in the country, by a combined 12 points. We said when Ole Miss ran all over us that we'd have to wait and see how the Vols played against Vanderbilt and Kentucky before we knew if this team really wasn't that good, or if the Ole Miss performance was simply the combination of lots of things having gone wrong that week. Two weeks and two wins later, I like our answer.
So the Vols have two early season losses, two losses to the two best teams in the nation, and an additional loss on the heels of arrests, suspensions, and injuries. There's no shame in losing to Florida and Alabama this year, much less on the road in competitive games. The loss to Ole Miss is more understandable given the outside circumstances, and the UCLA and Auburn losses came while this team was still finding itself.
Who did Tennessee beat?
You can say what you want about the quality of the teams Georgia and South Carolina fielded this season...but what I do know is that after the Florida and Alabama games we were always supposed to lose, those were the two most important games out there. And the Vols won them by a combined 44 points.
Tennessee beat an Ohio team that finished 9-3 and will play for the MAC Championship on Saturday. And while the Vols also beat 2-10 Vanderbilt, 2-10 Memphis and the worst team in FBS from Western Kentucky, they did so by a combined 100 points, showing dominance over teams they're supposed to dominate.
The Vols played nine bowl teams this season, and the losses and wins correspond well with the stories of:
Jonathan Crompton & Montario Hardesty
Two seniors who have seen it all from 2005-2009, and two captains that needed each other for Tennessee to succeed.
Hardesty, for all his greatness this season, couldn't beat UCLA, Florida or Auburn by himself. He needed Crompton and Tennessee's passing game to become a factor. And once it did, Hardesty returned the favor, giving Crompton and Kiffin a steady option in the running game, and coming through in the clutch in the final games of the season where he came up short in September.
Crompton's story will be remembered for a long time - whatever he does in the bowl game will only serve to make it more interesting. It has been the most compelling on-field storyline in Kiffin's first season, one that Crompton finishes with more than 2,500 yards, 26 touchdowns, and the respect of everyone in the Tennessee family. His remarkable turnaround is a credit to both the player and the head coach, one of the biggest reasons Kiffin has earned the confidence of the fan base in his first year.
Hardesty needs 159 yards in the bowl game to become Tennessee's greatest single-season rusher of all-time, a number that seems more likely now than ever before after #2 picked up 71 carries for 350 yards in his last two games combined. What's more: Hardesty hasn't fumbled this season. Ever.
Tyler Bray and Bryce Brown have lots of hype...but we're going to miss these two.
Aside from the arrests of three players and the dismissal of Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards before Janzen Jackson's charges were dropped, the Vols also showed Brandon Warren the door, and spent September trying to get the WRs and OLs healthy just in time to spend the rest of the year trying to find bodies on defense. We've heard Kiffin's mouth and Slive's responses, hated and loved our quarterback and learned the names of half a dozen players we never thought we'd need this season.
And week to week, with the exception of the Ole Miss game...Tennessee has gotten better.
The Season in One Game
Which is why it was so fitting to see all of these factors on display last night in Lexington.
Make no mistake: Kentucky has become a solid program that's accustomed to winning. UK's rise is one of the biggest factors in the SEC's increased depth. In the old days, when UK was your third biggest win of the season, things probably didn't go well. But this isn't the old days...and after all, Kentucky was our single biggest win of the season last year.
And make no mistake that, once again, last night they thought they had us.
Adversity came to play early, with a pick six that invoked memories of Evil Crompton. For me, I immediately thought of the 2002 Alabama game, when the Vols had won seven in a row (where seven in a row over Alabama is probably equal to twenty-five in a row over Kentucky). On UT's opening drive in that game, the Vols saw a turnover returned for a touchdown, a play that felt like it let everyone in the stadium know that things were going to be different on that night, an eventual 34-14 Alabama victory.
But Crompton and Hardesty came to play too. Our quarterback rebounded with 220 yards, no more turnovers and every key throw we needed, including two more to Luke Stocker. Adversity didn't make Crompton worse, it made him better.
With the LB corps depleted, Tennessee's secondary made the three biggest defensive plays of the night: a welcome back sack from Janzen Jackson, an incredible game-saving tackle from Dennis Rogan on UK's final drive of regulation, and an OT TFL takedown from Eric Berry to push UK towards a 48 yard field goal they wouldn't make.
And how fitting that the game's final play involved a five-star effort from guys like Cody and Cory Sullins, opening up an unfathomable hole for this season's best player, who was happy to oblige with one more touchdown.
7-5 has never felt this good. 8-5 in January will feel even better.