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Bitter: Vanderbilt 45 Tennessee 34

The Vols blow a chance at the Sugar Bowl, and a season clinging to progress now dives into disappointment.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The first five games of this season made the best memories we’ve seen around here in at least nine years, if not before. And even after a double overtime loss at Texas A&M and the loss to Alabama everyone takes these days, the Vols had positioned themselves to do things not seen around here in at least nine years, if not before: win the SEC East and/or play in a New Year’s Six bowl.

Instead, in the last five games the Vols lost as a two-touchdown favorite at South Carolina, blowing the SEC East, and as a touchdown favorite at Vanderbilt, blowing the Sugar Bowl and ensuring every one of those good memories is forever tainted by this team and its coaching staff’s inability to take care of business against lesser competition this season. Despite the increased parity in the SEC behind Alabama, these losses will not be deemed acceptable.

Butch Jones is now 2-2 against Vanderbilt - congrats to Derek Mason and those guys - as the Commodores roared back from a 21-7 deficit to beat Tennessee 45-34 in Nashville. The Vols fumbled three times, the latter in the final minute of the third quarter leading to Vanderbilt’s first lead of the night at 38-34. Tennessee responded with a 12-play 65-yard drive, but Aaron Medley doinked a 37-yard field goal off the upright, his first miss inside 40 yards this season. From there the Tennessee defense broke one last time, as the Commodores needed just five plays to go 80 yards and make it 45-34.

Josh Dobbs was 31 of 34 for 340 yards, 10 yards per attempt, a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions. And we lost.

The Vol offense was statistically great, but did itself few favors in the second half going punt, field goal, fumble, missed field goal, and stopped on fourth down. The decision to go for it on 4th-and-4 instead of kicking a field goal (and saving a timeout) will be maligned by many, but much of the overall responsibility here will fall on the shoulders of the defense.

Injuries are real and have cost the Vols this season, especially at defensive tackle. I’m sure Darrin Kirkland and Cam Sutton aren’t playing at the level we thought we’d get from them in August. But this performance was the worst of three straight weeks of bad. Missouri may get more publicity because the Tigers got 740 yards, but that came on 110 plays. Vanderbilt’s offense - Vanderbilt’s - had the best yards per play day on Tennessee’s defense of any team this season. The Commodores went for 608 on 73 plays, 8.3 yards per play. Alabama got 7.8. Kentucky got 7.6.

The Vols stuffed the run in the first half but in the process gave up everything through the air. In the second half the Commodores still found success through the air - Kyle Shurmur was 21 of 35 for 416 yards (11.9 ypa) - but the run defense also broke late, as Ralph Webb finished with 114 yards on 21 carries.

There will be a bowl game, but it will not be in New Orleans. That was very much on the table, just like the SEC East, and the Vols blew it. And now it will not be in Orlando. Tennessee is going to fall to the group-of-six, and having played in Florida twice in the last two years on that carousel this will break hard towards the Music City or Liberty in my opinion. So many players who have done so much good for this program - Josh Dobbs, Derek Barnett who tonight tied Reggie White’s all-time sack record - will leave with no division titles, no New Year’s Six appearance to point to, and a championship of life being roasted all over the college football world tonight.

Butch Jones isn’t going to get fired for going 8-4 or 9-4 or 8-5. The buyout is too steep, there is no athletic director with real power to do so with Dave Hart a lame duck, and there are some who would still argue the Vols have been too bad too recently to move on from a coach who went 8-4 in consecutive seasons. But the pressure will be on in ways Jones has not felt before. And the uncertainty that seemed like the past in the first part of October is now present, again. This season is a disappointment, and the future that seemed bright now returns to mostly cloudy. Maybe it always has been.

This team gave us so much early in the year, but gave much of it away late. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a season like this one on the football side of things.

Same as we said the day Jones took this job, Tennessee fans will be here. Passion is what drives this conversation. But arms will remain crossed, still waiting to see just how far Butch Jones can take us. And after tonight and two years of 8-4 that should have ended in Atlanta, waiting to see if it’s any farther than this.

We’ll find out together next year.

Go Vols.