The last three years Tennessee's bowl dreams have died in ugly football games. In 2011 Kentucky used a wide receiver at quarterback and won a 10-7 game despite gaining just 217 yards of offense. In 2012 Vanderbilt put an official end to the Derek Dooley Era with a 41-18 blowout in Nashville. And last year freshman Josh Dobbs played without Marquez North, averaged just 2.8 yards per attempt, and the Commodores snuck by the Vols 14-10 in Knoxville.
So tonight we got much of the same. Marquez North was lost for the year, joining Josh Smith and more or less Jason Croom on the bench and turning a deep wide receiving corps into Pig Howard, Von Pearson, and nothing else; no other Vol wide receivers or tight ends caught a pass tonight. Jalen Hurd took a hit on his fifth carry of the night and left with what is probably a concussion. And an offensive line that has struggled all year did more of the same.
It was ugly. Tennessee gained 262 yards, Vanderbilt 272. The teams combined for 7 of 25 (28%) on third down and five turnovers.
But this time, Tennessee was just a little prettier. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown. Todd Kelly Jr. had a spectacular interception midway through the third quarter which turned into a Vol touchdown seven plays and 75 yards later. And the Vol defensive line was simply dominant, as Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt were the most important players on the field.
Josh Dobbs wasn't much better throwing the ball this year, 11 of 20 for 92 yards and two interceptions. But he made the biggest difference with his legs, keeping it 21 times for 91 yards including the sack yardage and scoring a pair of touchdowns of his own.
It wasn't pretty, but it was enough. And for the first time since 2010, the Vols accomplished their preseason goal: Tennessee will play in the postseason.
There is much to improve upon, and since the Vols only started a pair of seniors in Jordan Williams and Justin Coleman, the team you saw tonight and will see in the bowl game will be the team you'll see next season. Dobbs needs to make better decisions, but he also needs more health at the skill positions and more help on the offensive line. Tennessee needs to be better on 3rd and 1 and better defending the option.
But now an additional 15 practices beckon and another opponent will help write the story of Butch Jones and the bridge between Teams 118 and 119. And there are some potentially huge names out there the Vols could see in Nashville, Memphis, Charlotte or who knows where else. We'll spend the next week talking about all the possibilities.
For the year, and for the second year in a row, Tennessee gets about what it deserved under Butch Jones, neither over nor underachieving. Last year Tennessee lost one and won one it shouldn't have. This year the Vols once again pulled the upset on South Carolina and gave one away against Florida as the favorite. The Vols were also favored against Missouri, but as we mentioned last week, that game went the way both team's seasons have truly gone.
Progress was made this year in competitiveness and overall talent. And if you're discussing possibilities, consider this: if the Vols don't fumble it away against Georgia and fall all over themselves against Florida, two games Tennessee absolutely could have and should have won, UT is playing Missouri for the SEC East title last week. I think that game gave a true outcome and the Vols overall are probably where they should be, but right now in this division there's not much room between the basement and the penthouse.
That will become the desired destination for Team 119. What Tennessee does in the next few weeks will help them get there, and how the Vols fare in their 13th game will determine what kind of taste we have in our mouths between now and then. But today we celebrate this team finding ways to win, beautifully and ugly, the six games needed to maintain forward progress for Butch Jones and the Vols. Congrats to the coaches and players for getting back to the postseason. After three seasons away, we're going to enjoy it.