It is year ‘three’ for Tennessee under Butch Jones and the Volunteers have certainly taken shape. UT won their fifth straight game, rolling through an undefeated November reminiscent of years gone by, and thrashing Vanderbilt 53-28 to finish the regular season 8-4. Up next is likely a New Year’s bowl game, and a chance to continue the progression.
If the month of November reminded Tennessee fans of the past, so did Saturday’s game. It was never in doubt. The Vols were too powerful and Vandy could not keep up. A pair of late touchdowns saved the Commodores some surface embarrassment, but underneath the surface all knew exactly what had happened. While the offense had sputtered some against North Texas and Missouri the previous two games, there was nothing of the sort on Saturday against what was the SEC’s best defense.
Tennessee totaled 523 yards of total offense, with 331 on the ground. Joshua Dobbs set a new single-season rushing record for a quarterback at Tennessee with 623 yards, 93 on Saturday. Jalen Hurd rushed for 120 and Alvin Kamara chipped in 99 as the Vols did whatever, whenever.
While the defense remains a concern, Vandy did have 411 yards themselves with 202 on the ground. The special teams were exactly that. Cameron Sutton returned a punt for a touchdown for the second straight game against Vanderbilt, and Aaron Medley booted three field goals including a career-long.
The Volunteers scored on their first four possessions to start the game, then had another four possession streak in the second half that put the game to rest. These were struggles Vanderbilt had not had all year on defense. They were not anticipated. But just as in so many match ups of the past, Tennessee was just too strong—a physical advantage Vanderbilt could do nothing about. The Vandy offense performed far above expectations, but the defense was unable to get that key stop.
The Commodores scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions in the first half, but were only able to cut a 10-0 deficit to 20-14. Kyle Shurmur’s maturation continues, and he certainly looks the part as the quarterback of the future. Inconsistent, but in the end Shurmur passed for 209 yards and three touchdowns, though the last two came at the end of the game after matters had long been decided. Still, it is a game to build upon into a very important offseason.
Ralph Webb was sensational, rushing for 149 yards on 21 carries. UT’s run defense was porous up the middle in this game. Trent Sherfield and Steven Scheu, both of whom had been largely invisible the last few games, caught scoring passes. Zach Cunningham and Oren Burks should each garner season honors on defense to go with Webb on offense. It was a season of great improvement for Vanderbilt from the start to the finish, but 4-8 is still nowhere near where this program needs to be.
But the day belonged to the Big Orange and that is where the story lies. This program is once again resembling the program we all once knew. Butch Jones has returned traditional Tennessee football and traditional Tennessee values, substance over style, power over finesse, and the results are coming. The Volunteers have won five in a row for the first time since 2007, the last season under Philip Fulmer. That was the last season they won 10 games or the SEC East. It was the last season they truly had relevance. The holiday destination will be revealed Sunday night, and it is sure to be a good one.