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Needing to find a response, Tennessee left no doubt

Syndication: The Tennessean George Walker IV / / USA TODAY NETWORK

A gut-wrenching 63-38 loss to South Carolina ended Tennessee’s title hopes just seven days ago. Hendon Hooker was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Lockerroom drama with Jeremy Banks was essentially confirmed by various reports and by the way Josh Heupel commented throughout the week.

Kirk Herbstreit announced to the world during the College Football Playoff rankings reveal that Tennessee was going to lose to Vanderbilt. Plenty agreed.

It all could have fallen apart 2016-style for Josh Heupel, but it didn’t. In fact, quite the opposite.

Heading to Nashville to face a red hot Vanderbilt team, it almost felt like a setup. It was a story that we had all seen before, and with the Commodores fresh off of wins against Kentucky and Florida, everyone was at least expecting a tough night at the office.

Tennessee did not get that.

The Volunteers, instead, dismantled Vandy from the opening kick. Joe Milton got things started with a deep shot to Jalin Hyatt, and the rout was on from there. 56-0 was the final tally, which gave Tennessee their first ten-win regular season since 2003.

Tim Banks’ defense, fresh off of making Spencer Rattler look like a Heisman candidate, made a massive statement today. Playing without safety Trevon Flowers and a number of different cornerbacks, the Volunteers held Vanderbilt to 107 passing yards. They averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.

Sure, it’s Vandy. Sure, we had a nasty, steady rain all night long. But for this unit to pitch a shutout after the week that they had? That’s mighty impressive, especially when you consider the injuries that the secondary was dealing with. It speaks to the culture inside of the program, which was obviously called into question all week long.

Jeremy Banks, for reference, made the trip and started tonight. He was his usual self — a true difference maker in the teeth of the Tennessee defense. There’s more to that story, but we may never get to know it. Clearly, Banks did enough to earn back his spot, and Tennessee sure needed him back.

How about the offense? It was a nasty night, meaning the ground game needed to take center stage — and did it ever. Milton’s threat of the deep ball certainly opened up some lanes for Jabari Small, Jaylen Wright and Dylan Sampson tonight. Tennessee broke Vanderbilt’s will in the third quarter, however. Just trying to run the ball and get out of town, the Vols kept breaking off homeruns.

Small hit one, Wright hit one and then Sampson hit another. By the end of the night, Tennessee had 362 yards rushing, averaging 11.7 yards per carry.

Keep in mind that all of this happened against a team that took Florida out back last week, and also beat Kentucky on the road the week before that.

Look, beating Vanderbilt is never going to be any sort of signature win. However, doing it in this fashion and bouncing all the way back from that debacle in Columbia last week is a big deal. Tonight felt like a pivotal point for Heupel — the thought of losing all the momentum that you’ve built this fall would be devastating. His program responded in a big, big way, leaving absolutely no doubt on their way to finishing off a 10-2 season.

Their reward? It might just be a trip to the Orange Bowl. But more on that later.