If there were any doubt that Tennessee would suffer a hangover after last week’s loss at South Carolina, it disappeared in a hurry.
The Vols scored 55 seconds into the game at rainy Vanderbilt then ripped off four touchdown runs of at least 50 yards to dismantle the Commodores 56-0.
Tennessee (10-2) recorded its first 10-win regular season since 2003 and went 6-2 in SEC play to finish second in the East division to top-ranked Georgia. In fact, Georgia was the only SEC team to have a better conference record than the Vols.
It was an incredibly impressive performance after an embarrassing 63-38 loss at South Carolina the week before.
It also could catapult the Vols into the No. 7 spot in the College Football Playoff as LSU, Oregon and Clemson lost.
“This is a great win for our program,’’ said UT coach Josh Heupel. “A lot’s been made of the culture in the locker room, whatever it may be. This is a culture win, man.’’
It sure was. Tennessee could easily have tucked its tail and felt sorry for itself after blowing a chance to make the four-team. It could have waved a white towel after quarterback Hendon Hooker was lost for the season due to a torn ACL. The defense could have sulked after giving up 606 yards to the Gamecocks.
But that didn’t happen.
“I’m certainly proud of this football team, our staff and our players,’’ Heupel said. “This team is really connected and competes extremely hard for each other.’’
The defense did a remarkable about face.
After being shredded by South Carolina, the defense pitched a rare SEC shutout. Vandy was held to 147 rush yards on 47 carries and passed for just 107 yards on 18 of 30 attempts.
“We knew they wanted to run the ball,’’ said UT defensive back Wesley Walker. “Hats off to the guys up front. It was a collective effort. Pitching a shutout is real big.’’
The way Tennessee thrashed Vanderbilt, it’s amazing to think that was the same team that won at Kentucky and beat Florida last week.
Tennessee struck first when Joe Milton hit Jalin Hyatt for a 61-yard pass and Jabari Small scored the first of his two touchdowns on a 3-yard run just 55 seconds into the game.
Tennessee converted a fourth-and-4 to score on the game’s third possession, then got a 73-yard punt return from Dee Williams to stretch the lead to 21-0.
In the second half, Tennessee hit Vandy with several long runs.
Small rambled 52 yards on UT’s first drive of the second half. Jaylen Wright zipped 50 yards on the next possession for a 35-0 cushion.
After Joe Milton hit Walker Merrill for 7-yard score, Wright went 83 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter, then Dylan Sampson went 80 yards on the next snap.
Tennessee finished the game with 362 yards on 31 runs, an average of 11.7 yards per attempt.
The Vols also garnered 513 total yards with Hooker and receiver Cedric Tillman and three offensive linemen that either didn’t play or didn’t finish the game.
The Vols did all that damage with only 16 minutes, 15 seconds time of possession, showing just how overrated that stat is when you run an up-tempo offense.
Vanderbilt needed 43 minutes, 45 seconds to gain 254 total yards.
Heupel couldn’t help but reflect on what to date has been a marvelous journey for UT football.
“Two years ago when I took the job,’’ Heupel said, “to think we’d be here with 10 wins, to think we’d be here in year two ….
“I’ll got to battle with these guys every day.’’
Tennessee is unsure of when or where its next battle will be.
But it has put itself in position to be in a New Year’s Six bowl, whether that’s the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl.
Nobody saw that coming two years ago.
Nobody saw that coming entering this season.
And not many saw it coming entering October.
As Heupel said after the one-sided win over Vanderbilt: “The future’s bright.’’
And the future will feature a high-level bowl game.