Let's start with this:
Kirk Ferentz: "This is the best execution we saw from their football team all season long."— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) January 3, 2015
This is true, right? The South Carolina win may ultimately end up being more memorable, but this was easily the most complete game Tennessee has played since your choice of Kentucky or Utah State. And we're pretty sure Iowa was better than Kentucky, right?
If Utah State was the start of an idea about where this program was going, Iowa was its closing argument. The season opener was about Justin Worley and A.J. Johnson. The season finale was about Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, and a defense made almost entirely of players who will return to Knoxville for a very promising future. 202 of Iowa's 421 yards came in the game's final 16 minutes, after LaDarrell McNeil's end zone interception with the Vols up 42-7. Three-fourths of Iowa's points came against the backups.
Meanwhile Tennessee wasn't just efficient, they were lethal: in the process of building that 42-7 lead the Vols picked up 413 yards in just 2.5 quarters and 49 plays. Jalen Hurd made it look easy, missing a career high by three yards but needing only 16 carries to get 122 yards and two touchdowns. Josh Dobbs did the same, completing 76.1% of his passes. That's the best number for a Vol against an FBS foe since Butch Jones was on the other sideline for Tyler Bray's big day in 2011. If the leading question on Dobbs was his ability to make routine throws, completing almost everything today without Marquez North and Jason Croom was a tremendous step of progress.
And don't forget, Tennessee did all of this behind its same five offensive linemen. There's nowhere the Vols will get better than up front, and they were just fine today against the strength of Iowa's defense.
On defense Tennessee routinely made plays behind the line, including short yardage situations in holding Iowa to 3 for 11 on third down and earning a critical fourth down stop to set the tone. Iowa's offensive linemen, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff, were more than a little grabby with Tennessee's speed off the edge. Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt are going to be very bad news for any offensive line next season.
All in all it's a dominant performance against a mid-tier Big Ten team. But the fact that Tennessee's best game of the year came in its last game of the year with the youngest team in the nation means things are going exactly the way you want them to if you're Butch Jones. It means through all the bumps, bruises, injuries and disappointments, this team got better. The freshmen weren't really freshmen by the end of the season, which means they won't really be sophomores in many ways next year. The quarterback assumed command. The team, through losses and in victory, matured. And that maturation showed in big ways today.
The fourth-year seniors on this team played in and won their first bowl game. Marlin Lane threw a strike on the trick play that really blew this thing open. Jacob Gilliam has been one of the season's best stories. Today was a great step forward for the program and a great send-off for those guys.
So, where to next?
When the primary talking point in the fourth quarter from a national perspective is Butch Jones trying to manage expectations for the future, you might as well just embrace them. As noted, you don't assume Tennessee is going to compete for a playoff spot just on the strength of this game alone. But you can now look at the natural progression and believe Tennessee should be in the fight for the SEC East next season. That's always been the most important thing, the natural progression. Today you saw the biggest on field evidence. But today was simply the next step.
Butch Jones on 2015 team's goal: "We always have one goal ... it's to be a better football team each and every day."— Volquest Staff (@Volquest_Rivals) January 3, 2015
Tennessee proved it's a better football team on January 2 than it was on August 31. How good can it be on September 5?
This is the most excited I've been to find out in the last seven years.
Today was the best it's been so far under Butch's watch. And if Tennessee continues to naturally progress, we can say with greater certainty than any time in these last, long years: the best is yet to come.