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Tennessee football didn’t let devastating loss kill focus at Vanderbilt

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A 56-0 blowout seems like an easy win, but it shouldn’t have been that easy for Tennessee football entering Saturday’s matchup at the Vanderbilt Commodores. The teams had opposite levels of morale.

UT had to refocus after effectively costing itself a shot at the College Football Playoff in a 63-38 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks on the road. Their Heisman hopes ended in that game too thanks to Hendon Hooker’s season-ending injury.

Vandy, meanwhile, was on a two-game winning streak and shockingly had a chance to reach a bowl, so they had all the momentum playing at home. Still, Tennessee football dominated. Tight end Jacob Warren touted the focus of this team throughout the week.

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“On Tuesday, there was a level of attention to detail, just a level of focus that needed to be there, and I was extremely happy as an older guy on the team that can pick up on those things,” Warren said.

What may have helped the focus is the perspective of some of the older players like Warren. He committed to Jeremy Pruitt in 2018, so this is a far cry from where the program was.

Some players committed in 2017, Butch Jones’ first season. Either way, for many older players the prospect of a 10-win season was too great to just sleep on the game.

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“Obviously you go throughout the season, and you do what you do, and and it’s awesome to look back and just realize the accomplishments that that we’ve made so far and will continue to make throughout the bowl season,” Warren said. “Obviously it’ll be interesting to see where where we get to go.”

With the win, the Vols secured a 10-win season for the first time since 2007 and a 10-win regular season for the first time since 2003. It also put them in likely the best bowl game they have been in since 1999.

A New Year’s Six bowl is on the table, as is their first top 10 finish since 2001. Warren said players understood what they were fighting for at Vanderbilt.

“We’re all competitors, we’re all athletes, and no one likes losing, so at the end of the day, do I want to go through that feeling again? No. No one does,” he said. “I know the fans don’t, and we definitely don’t either.”

That level of perspective given the struggles of this program is necessary for them to keep building under Josh Heupel. It’s something that was lacking under Butch Jones when they lost in 2016 at Vandy, costing themselves a New Year’s Bowl berth.

This team seemed much more likely to embrace what was on the table. That mentality worked out in their blowout victory in Nashville Saturday night.

“We’ve done a lot of good things this season, and regardless of whatever the outcome is, we’ll be in a good bowl, and we’ll be playing against a really good competitor and and have a good time wherever we are,” Warren said.

It’s also worth noting that the College Football Playoff isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. Four teams ahead of Tennessee football lost on Saturday, and they were already No. 10.

That could put the Vols at No. 6, and the USC Trojans and TCU Horned Frogs could both drop below them with losses. Both teams have to play conference championship games this weekend.

They also have a case to be ahead of the Alabama Crimson Tide, whom they beat and have the same record as, so they may need just one of them to lose. Warren acknowledged that was on their mind when facing Vanderbilt.

“We don’t know what the people are thinking and how they make decisions and stuff,” he said. “Obviously, you think about it, and now we’ve got some teams to root for coming up next week, so we’ll see where we land.”

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