Just a few seasons ago when Tennessee would be put into a tough situation they would almost immediately fold and wave the white flag. This year Tennessee Football was put into one of the toughest spots they could have imagined after starting the season 1-4 including losses to Georgia State and BYU. However, they battled back and won 5 of their last 6 games to finish the season 7-5 and achieve bowl eligibility, a task that was deemed unachievable when the Vols were 1-4.
The situation Tennessee was put into was almost unthinkable during the preseason when hopes for the Volunteers were extremely high. Vol Fans, and the national media, expected Tennessee to make a major step in the right direction and finish with 7 or 8 wins. Some national media members even considered Tennessee as a dark horse in the race for the SEC Eastern division. Unfortunately, all of those hopes came crashing down on August 31st when Georgia State stunned Tennessee in their season opener 38-30. Times were dark on Rocky Top, and many Vol Fans were wondering if they would ever hit rock bottom. Things became even worse when Tennessee blew a game they should have won against BYU by giving up a long bomb down the sidelines allowing the Cougars to tie the game and later win it in overtime.
After a shocking start to the season, the Vols turned their attention to their bitter division rival, the Florida Gators for what was sure to be a hard-fought game in Gainesville. Many believed that it could be the turning point of the season, Florida had struggled so far and with their starting quarterback Feleipe Franks out for the season, the Gators seemed somewhat vulnerable. Long story short, the game ended up being an absolute disaster for Tennessee as they were rolled by the Gators 34-3. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was benched and many Vol Fans believed that they should turn to true-freshman quarterback Brian Maurer to be their new starter.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt decided to go ahead and give Maurer an opportunity to start against the Georgia Bulldogs. The Volunteers were a massive underdog and many doubted that Tennessee even had a chance in the game. Despite this Maurer provided a spark for the Vols that had not been seen in Knoxville for a long time. Tennessee lost the game and the score was not really close but they walked away from that match-up a better team. Despite the Vols somewhat uplifting performance ESPN’s FPI gave them only a 5% chance at making a Bowl Game, the season appeared to be hopeless.
Maurer started yet again in a much more winnable game for Tennessee against Mississippi State and while he started off the game very well, an injury (concussion) forced him to leave and forced former starter Jarrett Guarantano back onto the big stage. Guarantano did not have an elite performance but he played well enough to give Tennessee their first SEC win since last season’s 24-7 beatdown of the Kentucky Wildcats.
A week later against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Tennessee had the ball just a few feet away from the goal line on 4th and goal late in the 4th quarter. Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney had dialed up the perfect play, Trey Smith would pull and open up a massive hole for Tennessee fullback Quavaris Crouch who would walk into the endzone. That would make it a one-possession game and the Vols could punt it back to a struggling Alabama offense in hopes of forcing a 3 and out. However, as Jarrett Guarantano walked onto the field to snap the ball he made a mind-boggling decision. He changed Chaney’s perfect play call to a quarterback sneak where he attempted to jump over the goal line but fumbled the ball right into the hands of an Alabama defender who returned the ball 99 yards to ice the game. It was an all-time low for Guarantano as fans lashed out at him for the head-scratching mistake.
At this point, many teams would tune out and give up. Many teams would wave the white flag and move on to other things. But not Jeremy Pruitt’s Volunteers, who became even more focused. They knew they would have to win 4 of their last 5 to get to a bowl game and they were going to do everything in their power to achieve that.
The Vols would start off their unreal run against a red-hot South Carolina team who had just beaten the highly ranked Georgia Bulldogs a few weeks prior. This was the game when everything clicked for Tennessee, they embarrassed South Carolina and after Daniel Bituli blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown the final score ended up being 41-21.
Two weeks later against Kentucky the Volunteers were in an extremely tough spot. The Wildcats had the ball 1st and goal with roughly 2 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter down 17-13. The Vols stuffed Kentucky the first two times they attempted to get into the endzone and Henry To’oto’o slammed into Kentucky’s runner for no gain to set up a monumental 4th and goal. On 4th and goal, Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden ran the option, he quickly began losing ground and when he made the cut Daniel Bituli put down the hammer slamming him to the ground short of the goal-line. Tennessee had now won three in a row and only had to win one last game to clinch bowl eligibility.
Against Missouri, the Volunteers achieved their goal when Guarantano got off a quick pass to Jauan Jennings to essentially ice the game. Tennessee ran out the clock and it was a great moment for the entire Volunteer squad as they celebrated their first bowl birth since the 2016 season. Tennessee then finished their storybook-like season against the Vanderbilt Commodores, defeating their in-state rival 28-10 to conclude the regular season and finish 7-5.
The resiliency this team has shown throughout the entire course of the season was simply unreal and they’re not finished just yet. The Vols don’t know which team they’ll meet in a bowl game just yet, but when they do it’ll be up to them to write the final chapter of this season and finish the story.