In the first installment of the ten greatest Tennessee games of the past decade series, I’ll be revisiting the Vols’ 2016 Music City Bowl win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
That day in Nashville was a bitter-sweet end to a season that saw so much promise go down the drain. The Vols ended up in the Music City Bowl after squandering a golden opportunity to head to New Orleans to play in the Sugar Bowl. All Tennessee had to do was beat Vanderbilt. As we know, that didn’t happen as the Commodores came roaring back with 14 fourth quarter points to win.
A disappointing season got a lot tougher that night — which in retrospect turned out to be the beginning of the end for Butch Jones in Knoxville. But that’s another story for another day.
With sights set on an SEC East title, Tennessee fans had to settle for a Music City Bowl appearance. While that was tough to swallow, a marquee matchup between two of college football’s greatest programs helped generate some buzz on an otherwise empty game.
Another cool aspect of this game was Tennessee’s choice to wear their ‘Smokey Grey’ alternate uniforms. The Vols were honoring the wildfires in the Gatlinburg area, which killed 14 people and devastated the area.
The Cornhuskers were in the same boat as the Volunteers, having started their season 7-0 under Mike Riley. Nebraska season was laid to rest by Ohio State on November 5th as the Buckeyes beat the Cornhuskers 62-3 in Columbus.
Nebraska ended up going 9-3 on the year, showing two more losses to Iowa and Wisconsin.
As similar as the two teams may have been in mindset, Nebraska would have to push through without their starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. That left Ryker Fyfe to handle the majority of the snaps.
It didn’t go well for Mr. Fyfe. Tennessee teed off on the reserve quarterback, forcing him out of the pocket on nearly every snap.
Derek Barnett was the story of the day for the Vols. The standout defensive end was just one sack away from breaking Reggie White’s school record for sacks in a career. Barnett got pressure on virtually every passing snap, but he didn’t get home until late in the fourth quarter.
Barnett was credited with four pressures on the day, but it felt like much more. He was a one man wrecking crew for Tennessee on that day, despite what the numbers tell you.
Tennessee jumped out to a 14-0 lead and never really looked back. Two first quarter rushing touchdowns from Josh Dobbs and another from John Kelly had the Vols off and running.
Dobbs carried Tennessee all day offensively, doing a little bit of everything, as he usually did. He totaled 118 yards on the ground and added three rushing touchdowns on the day. He threw for another 291 yards and added a 59 yard touchdown to Josh Malone for good measure.
It was a fun ending to a season that was supposed to mark Tennessee’s return to the national college football stage. In some ways, they did return, but losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt doomed that season. Before that, a 49-10 loss at home to Alabama told us all we needed to know about that team, unfortunately.
But we’ll always have those bowl wins from Butch Jones. This was the final bowl win for Jones at Tennessee, who ended up going 3-0 in post-season appearances.
Mid-tier bowl wins are generally worthless, but this was a fun game that we can remember because of Derek Barnett, who did something truly special on that day in Nashville. It was a cool way to send off that core of Barnett, Dobbs, Kamara, Sutton and others, who pretty clearly carried Jones for a couple of years.
Be on the lookout for the rest of our top ten in the coming days.