Tennessee football: 5 biggest reasons surging Vols saved their season
Admit it, Vols fans … when Tennessee was sitting at 1-4, you didn’t think there was a chance in heck that UT was going to a bowl game.
Tennessee was sloppy, undisciplined and didn’t show any signs of improvement from the year before. What’s worse, they didn’t show any fight. They were blown out by Florida and Georgia. With few “guaranteed” wins left on the schedule, a historic 9-loss season didn’t seem impossible.
But UT has won 4 of its past 5 games, including a 3-game win streak. And with a single win in their final 2 games, the Vols will indeed be postseason bound. Win both, and they’ll be 5-3 in the SEC for just the 2nd time since Phillip Fulmer was fired.
So what has been the difference lately? I have 5 reasons. These are presented in no particular order.
1. Kentucky is on the schedule
Over the years the Tennessee Volunteers have simply owned Kentucky. They’ve now won 33 of the past 35 meetings. The Vols have won when Kentucky had a generational quarterback (Tim Couch). They won with fired coaches (Phillip Fulmer). They won with interim head coaches (Jim Chaney). They won their only 2 overtime meetings (2007, 2009). From 1996-2000 they won 5 games while never scoring less than 56 points!
So even when the Wildcats jumped out to a 13-0 lead last Saturday night, you didn’t really think Tennessee was losing, did you? With the Wildcats down 17-13 but sitting at the Vols’ 1-yard-line in the final 2 minutes, you knew they weren’t getting the football in the end zone, right?
The Vols needed to prove that they could win a road game. They needed to prove that they can find a way to win a game when they didn’t play especially well. Lucky for them, Kentucky was ready to oblige, as (almost) always.
2. Daniel Bituli’s leadership
The senior from Nashville Christian has had a solid career at Tennessee. He led the Vols in tackles his sophomore and junior years and is atop the team count again despite missing 2 games due to injury. But in their past 3 SEC victories, Bituli has been at his best. He had a team-high 7 tackles against Mississippi State, a team-high 15 tackles (11 solo) against South Carolina and … you guessed it, a team-high 19 tackles (10 solo) against Kentucky.
He shared a tackle with Ja’Quain Blakely on Kentucky’s final play, a 4th-and-goal stop of UK quarterback Lynn Bowden at the 2.
You need players who simply won’t allow their team to fail. Lately, Bituli has fit that bill. He’s certainly making the most of his final year in Knoxville.
3. Jim Chaney’s adjustments
It’s no secret that Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney doesn’t feel comfortable with his quarterbacks. Mistakes by Jarrett Guarantano cost the Vols the BYU game and kept them from being competitive against Florida. Brian Maurer has shown flashes of potential, but he’s struggled to stay out of the medical tent. He also has thrown 5 picks in 6 games and was pulled after a half in Lexington. J.T. Shrout is on a short leash due to questionable decisions in limited action.
But lately Chaney has been working with the hand he’s been given.
Against Kentucky, the ground game was a struggle. Tennessee’s running backs (Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Eric Gray) could only muster 37 yards on 11 carries. Chaney knew they had to throw the football to have a chance to win. In the second half, Guarantano was instructed to find his big-play guys, and he did. His connections with Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer were the difference.
Chaney is finding ways to move the football. Against Mississippi State the Vols ran for 203 yards in a 24-10 win. The difference in their 41-21 triumph against South Carolina was a combined 351 passing yards from Guarantano and Shrout.
Tennessee won’t be confused with the high-powered offensive attacks of LSU or Alabama. But Chaney is making the most of the Vols’ situation.
4. The Jauan Jennings Experience
It has been quite the college career for Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings. From historic game-winning catches in back-to-back weeks against Florida and Georgia in 2016, to getting kicked off the team following an Instagram rant in 2017, to his return in 2018 and transition to becoming a team leader … Jennings’ time in Knoxville has been memorable.
And he’s doing all he can to make sure there will be 1 more game to play after the regular season.
Look no further than the South Carolina game. Jennings was the best player on the field. He caught 7 passes for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns, barreling over and through Gamecocks defenders all afternoon. Without him, who knows if they win that game and start this recent winning streak.
5. The Power of Positivity
I know, it’s cliché … but with seemingly endless negativity surrounding the Tennessee football program in recent years, it’s funny how quickly things can turn when there’s even a little bit of positivity.
The Mississippi State win helped, but oddly enough, the 35-13 loss to Alabama might have gotten the good vibes going even more so. The 22-point margin wasn’t a proper representation of how close that game was. The Vols were in it until midway through the 4th quarter.
After years of getting destroyed by the Crimson Tide, Tennessee showed that it wasn’t going to surrender. Since that evening in Tuscaloosa, the Vols haven’t lost.
There was a time when Tennessee was the team that did the intimidating in the SEC. Maybe we aren’t far from seeing that happen again.