UT’s surprising turnaround leads to bowl bid

Tennessee running back Eric Gray (3) runs the ball in for a touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE — What a difference a few months can make.

The Tennessee Volunteers wrapped up their regular season Saturday with a 28-10 in over Vanderbilt. With the victory, the Vols have a 7-5 record as they await their formal bowl invitation and concluded the season on a high note, winning their last five games and six of their last seven. An air of positivity surrounds the program and that is a far cry from how the first half of the season began. Coming into the 2019 season, expectations for total victories ranged anywhere from six to nine. With a favorable schedule, a 9-3 season was not out of the realm of possibility.

Then came Georgia State.

Two fourth quarter turnovers doomed the Volunteers to a shocking 38-30 opening game loss to the Panthers. One week later, the Vols had the BYU game in the bag until Zach Wilson uncorked a pass to Micah Simon who snuck behind the UT defense to haul in a 64-yard catch at the UT 16 yard line. Jake Oldroyd booted through a game-tying 33-yard field goal at the end of regulation. The Cougars eventually won in double overtime. The Vols sat at 0-2 before they even started conference play and the natives were restless, with many calling for head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s head.

After a 45-0 shutout of Chattanooga, the Vols were dump-trucked by eighth-ranked Florida and after playing well in the first half, ran out of gas in the second half against third-ranked Georgia. So there Tennessee sat at 1-4 and it seemed the bottom had fallen out. It seemed the season was lost. It seemed to everyone that all hope was gone. Everyone, that is, except Pruitt, his staff and the Tennessee players. Pruitt kept preaching patience and a buy-in to what he was trying to do to resurrect a program that had experienced a decade of decline and misery. Something clicked and the process finally worked.

“I can’t say enough about the players and the seniors and the leadership that they have provided throughout the course of the year. We were 1-4 and probably nobody gave us much hope,” Pruitt said after Saturday’s win over the Commodores. “These guys stayed the course and stuck together. That credit goes to our coaching staff and our assistant coaches for having a plan. To do something like that, there has to be relationships. I think our coaching staff, our players, our team, we have great relationships with our players. Our players have great relationships with each other. They hung together and found a way. They kept improving week-in and week-out (by) going to practice every single day and trying to find a way to improve. That is credit to them. It says a whole lot about their character and who they are.”

Things started to turn around with a 20-10 win over Mississippi State and, even though they lost 35-13 to top-ranked Alabama, the Vols were in the game as they only trailed 21-13 midway through the third quarter. Tennessee came back home to face South Carolina and that was when the streak began as they shut out the Gamecocks in the second half, blasted a very good UAB team, had a goal-line defensive stand to best Kentucky, held on for a hard-earned win at Missouri and then exacted some revenge on Vandy last Saturday, a team that had defeated the Vols three years in a row. From 1-4 to 7-5 seemed improbable, if not impossible. But now, it’s a reality.

Pruitt knew he had a gigantic rebuild project on his hands when he took over the UT program two years ago and he reflected on how far the team has come from that day. “Unless you were here the first day that I walked in this building, I don’t think you understand how far we actually have come. Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was here. It’s a long way, I can assure you of that. Our guys, I’m excited for them – the way they feel, the confidence they have. We’re playing with so much more confidence. They’re believing in themselves, believing in each other. If you think back over the last five wins, there are just different points in the game where somebody stepped up, a unit stepped up and found a way. That’s what good football teams do. You have to find a way, even when you’re maybe not playing at your best. I look at what our assistant coaches have done, keeping these guys together, keeping them believing. And them finding a way, finding a way to get it done.”

Because of the undying devotion of the fan base, Tennessee should get a very good bowl invite as they will bring a ton of people to their final game of the season. What may be even bigger is the Vols will now have more opportunities for practice, to help develop a very young team for the future. “We have lots of momentum. Our kids are excited about being at Tennessee. They’re excited about the future. I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to bowl practice so we can continue to develop as a football team. We have a long way to go to where we want to get to, and we want to finish. We have one more opportunity to finish, and that’s something that we’re going to focus on,” Pruitt said.

From 1-4 to 7-5. Indeed, what a difference a few months can make.

SHUTTING THEM DOWN

One of the major factors for the Volunteers’ successful turnaround was the improvement of the defense. Pruitt had made his reputation as a defensive-minded coach and that showed in the last half of the season. From the second half of the South Carolina game until the finale against Vanderbilt, Tennessee’s defense gave up a grand total of 50 points in 18 quarters. That’s an average of less than a field goal per quarter. The defense only gave up six touchdowns in that streak. In wins over UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt, the UT defense didn’t allow any of those teams to reach the 300-yard mark in total offense and only Kentucky came close with 296.

SOLID SCHEDULE

Tennessee’s schedule was a tough one this year as nine of the 12 opponents are bowl eligible. While the loss to Georgia State is still the biggest blemish on the year, the Panthers proved to be a good team as they finished 7-5 to complete a remarkable turnaround from the 2-10 season they posted in 2018. BYU is also 7-5 as they beat 24th-ranked USC the week after topping the Vols and then upset Boise State who was ranked 14th at the time. Georgia plays for the SEC title this week and Florida won 10 games. Mississippi State won their final two games to get bowl eligible, UAB collected nine wins and will play for their conference championship this week, Kentucky obliterated in-state rival Louisville last Saturday and Missouri is bowl eligible despite the fact they fired head coach Barry Odom. Chattanooga finished the season 6-6 so that means South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the only two teams on the schedule who finished with losing records.

GOOD GRAY-CIOUS

To think that Eric Gray was still in high school this time last year makes what he did to Vanderbilt last Saturday all the more incredible. The Memphis-native carried the ball 25 times for 250 yards and scored three times in the 28-10 victory. Because of the heavy rains that plagued the game, Tennessee had to keep the ball on the ground and Gray delivered as he set the true-freshman rushing record and had the fifth-best single game rushing performance in school history. Gray had amassed only 207 total yards this season prior to Saturday’s break-out performance.

“First, I want to say all glory to God. It’s all glory to Him, but that’s just a testament to the line,” Gray said after the game. “I came into the game prepared like always do and it broke for me tonight. It’s just a blessing to the O-line, blessing to the coaches. We knew coming into the game that it was going to be a rainy day, so we were going to have to run the ball. I felt like the O-line did a great job and we just made the breaks.” On his second touchdown run, Gray hit truck-sized hole in the offensive line and he was off to the races for a 94-yard score. “I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I know they made a heck of a block because when I broke, there was no one there,” Gray said. “No one in the second level. Once I got past the line, there was no one there. That’s a dream of mine – to be backed up like that and to take it 94 yards. That’s always been a dream of mine and it’s just a blessing to be able to do it.”

SAYING GOODBYE

Saturday’s game featured the final game at Neyland Stadium for 14 Volunteers as they ran through the “T” for the last time. Darrin Kirkland Jr. (a 2018 graduate), Daniel Bituli, Tyler Byrd, Marquez Callaway, Andrew Craig, Jauan Jennings, Riley Lovingood, Darrell Taylor, Nigel Warrior, Dominick Wood-Anderson, Matt Ballard, Landon Knoll, Chip Omer and Jake Yelich were all honored prior to the game. “It’s an amazing feeling. This university has the greatest fan base and to go out there and perform in front of them one last time in Neyland Stadium definitely meant the world to me,” Bituli said. Callaway echoed his teammate’s sentiments when he said “it was a very emotional moment knowing that was the last time I was going to run out of the ‘T.’ I try not to show a lot of emotion, but I’m just happy we got the win today knowing it was my last time playing (at Neyland Stadium), so that was really what I was looking forward to.”

UP NEXT

Bowl selections will be announced later in the week. A 7-5 overall record, combined with Tennessee’s history of bringing boatloads of fans with money to spend at bowl games, should land the Volunteers a good spot. Bowls in consideration are the Gator, Music City, Liberty, Belk and Outback.