The Vols had a fantastic week of preparation in Jacksonville. All accounts said the young Tennessee team was focused, on task and loose throughout its seven days that included events such as a beach party, an arcade/bowling night, a rib-eating contest and, of course, the final preparations for the TaxSlayer Bowl. Butch Jones told one funny account of them not being able to find Derek Barnett for a curfew check because he’d already been asleep since 10 o’clock. The Vols had plenty of fun, but it was clear that they flew to Florida to win.
That showed on Friday as the Vols stormed out of the gate to an early lead and never let Iowa get seriously back in contention at EverBank Field. It was arguably Tennessee’s most complete game of the season – piling up points on a defense that ranked as high as top-10 nationally in some categories – and holding up against Iowa’s physical offensive front on defense to keep the Hawkeyes out of the end zone long enough to make sure that the game was never really in doubt. The offensive tempo was also among the best of the season, keeping Iowa off balance all afternoon.
It was a big week for Joshua Dobbs, who collected both TaxSlayer Bowl MVP honors and a student-athlete award from the bowl during the week. Even missing four scholarship receivers, Tennessee got the passing game back in gear with Dobbs putting together a very efficient night, completing 16-of-21 passes against the nation’s No. 9 passing defense. Dobbs, who also ran for 76 yards and two touchdowns, is gaining attention even from opponents.
“He certainly played an excellent football game today,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “You read about him, you get to see him at the banquet, very impressive young man, great student. Seems like a very humble young guy. Very impressive. He played an excellent football game today.”
Jalen Hurd also showed why he’s one of the best emerging backs in the nation. The Hawkeyes simply couldn’t bring him down on a regular basis and, if not for Hurd taking a big hit late in the game and the Vols getting seniors Marlin Lane and Devrin Young some late reps, he likely would’ve put up an even bigger line than the 122 yards and two touchdowns that he did record.
Outside of the game itself and all that happened on the field, it was a great week for the program at large with a lot of positive momentum surrounding it. Former Vols and current NFL players Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton and Eric Berry were among the alums in attendance in Jacksonville. Butch Jones also got a message from Peyton Manning shortly after the Vols finished off the win.
Bowl reps were blown away by the amount of support and the impact that Tennessee fans had on the surrounding community. Local hotels, restaurants and shops were filled with orange-clad occupants and Tennessee was certainly everything the bowl hoped for, and that should pay dividends in the future for the Vols when jockeying for bowl position.
While officials announced that over 60,000 tickets were sold, a gate of around 56,000 was announced. Still, that made the TaxSlayer Bowl the sixth-highest attended SEC-affiliated bowl game. Considering that three of the ones with higher attendance were a playoff or New Year’s Six affiliated bowl and one of the others was the Texas Bowl (with the University of Texas in it), that’s a really strong statement for a bowl that sold a small quantity of tickets to Iowa.
Tennessee said goodbye to 16 seniors after the game. It’s a class that went just 22-27 over the past four years, but those that stuck it out and kept battling helped this team start the turnaround and as Jones put it after the game, they will have a say in bringing Tennessee football back. One interesting note about the roster is that it is now completely clear of the Lane Kiffin era. No player who played for, signed with or committed to Kiffin remains in Knoxville. Redshirt sophomore receiver Drae Bowles will also be departing the team to transfer to Chattanooga. Bowles, a highly-recruited player out of Jackson, Tenn., never broke into the receiver rotation and made his mark mostly on special teams, appearing in 13 career games mostly in that area.
Arguably the story of the year is redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam, who came back from a torn ACL to reclaim a starting job. In a fitting finish, Gilliam also broke his hand at practice last Monday, but doctors gave him the ok to play with it wrapped during the game. Not that Gilliam was going to need doctor’s clearance anyhow. The Knoxville native told Rocky Top Insider that a severed arm might’ve been the only thing that kept him off the field – but he wasn’t even sure if that would do it.
The team flew back on Saturday and was greeted by fans in Knoxville after its first bowl win since the 2007 season. The players had a few days off before the spring semester starts on Wednesday officially. But it won’t be a long break with workouts starting back soon for a 2015 squad that will be highly anticipated. Spring practice is just a couple months away, so, as always is the case in the SEC especially, there really is no offseason.
What a difference a week makes.
Last week it appeared that LSU was in great position to land commitments from bot Justin Martin and Kyle Phillips after Ugo Amadi announced that he would be joining the Tigers 2015 class. But, as is always the case with recruiting, nothing is ever as clear as it may appear to be.
Last Wednesday’s announcement that longtime LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis would be leaving Baton Rouge to assume the same position at Texas A&M may have been the best recruiting news that Tennessee will receive all year long. Hours after it was announced that Chavis was headed to College Station to coach the Aggie defense, Justin Martin committed to Butch Jones and the University of Tennessee on New Year’s Eve. Martin appeared to be down to LSU and Tennessee as his final two schools – with many thinking that the Tigers held the advantage – but Chavis’ departure led to a quick decision from Martin, who should be able to compete for immediate playing time when he arrives to campus in May.
Kyle Phillips was also expected to announce for LSU ahead of the Chavis news, but Phillips gave his pledge to the Vols during Saturday’s Army All-American Game and will now be joining nine other players in enrolling at Tennessee this semester. The early enrollees are:
For a closer look at what each prospect brings to the table, check out our Early Enrollees post from Monday morning.
With less than a month until National Signing Day and Tennessee currently holding 28 commitments for the 2015 class, the list of remaining Vol targets is very short. Here’s a quick look at some of the top prospects that Tennessee is still looking to add to the 2015 class:
Offensive Guard/Offensive Tackle
6’4, 285 pounds
Reistertown, Maryland (Franklin)
Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida State, LSU
The Vols desperately need to add one more premier offensive tackle to this class, and, at this point, Allen is probably their best bet. The longtime Georgia commit decided to open up his recruitment after Bulldog offensive coordinator Mike Bobo announced that he would be taking the head coaching position at Colorado State. Allen appeared set to commit to the Vols on Sunday, January 4th, but has decided to wait and se who Georgia hires as their next OC before making his final decision.
Dual Threat Quarterback
6’3, 195 pounds
Moreno Valley, California (Rancho Verde)
Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Nebraska, Maryland
The former Florida Gator pledge currently has the Vols at the top of his list and will be visiting Knoxville for an official visit on January 16th. Tennessee is his only scheduled visit at this time and, if the staff feels comfortable with him as a player, expect him to be a Vol by the time National Signing Day rolls around.
5’10, 180 pounds
Wake Forest, North Carolina (Wake Forest)
Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin
Love appears to be down to Stanford and Tennessee with the Cardinal slightly ahead at this point. Tennessee wants to add another running back to this class and Love would be the perfect addition from a talent standpoint, but it appears that he may want to go to a place with a depth chart that isn’t quite as crowded. Distance from home is a factor that favors the Vols, but it may not be enough to snag the Tarheel State running back.
5-8, 180 pounds
Aledo, Tex. (Aledo)
Texas, Tennessee, UCLA
The Vols need one more receiver in this class to compliment Preston Williams and Newsome is their guy. Tennessee recently made Newsome’s top-3 along with Texas and UCLA and his Twitter feed would suggest that the Vols are out in front. Newsome has built strong relationships with many of Tennessee’s current commitments and Tennessee’s coaching staff, who has Newsome as the top WR left on their board – but will that be enough to steal Newsome away from the Longhorns? Too close to call.
Memphis, Tennessee (University School)
Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, LSU
Ole Miss commit
While Richmond appears to be firmly committed to Ole Miss, the Vol coaching staff will be working on him until he officially signs his letter of intent. With so many other in-state prospects joining the Vols in recent weeks, there has been some chatter that Richmond may be feeling a bit of pressure to sign with Tennessee. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but Tennessee will be doing all they can to flip the talented teckle from Memphis.
6-2, 200 pounds
Alpharetta, Ga. (Milton)
Miami, Texas A&M, Clemson, Florida State, Tennessee
Sapp is a player with a lot of potential at the outside linebacker position and would be a nice addition to the class that doesn’t really have a pure outside linebacker. Sapp has been rumored as a silent commit to Tennessee for months and, from all accounts, still looks like a player that Tennessee wants to add in 2015.
It’s going to be an interesting month leading up to signing day, so be sure to stay plugged into RTI for all of the latest updates and analysis.
The Vols sit at 8-4 on the season headed into conference play and will have a chance to make some noise in what looks like an improved SEC thus far. As of January 2nd, 12 SEC teams ranked in the top 110 of ESPN’s RPI and five SEC teams were in the top 40. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has five SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament in his January 5th projections, Kentucky (1 seed), Georgia (10 seed), South Carolina (11 seed play in game), LSU (9 seed) and Arkansas (8 seed).
Tennessee is, notably, not on that list but will have a chance to play their way in during an 18-game conference schedule. The Vols stand at 75th in the NCAA’s most recent RPI rankings and 74th in ESPN’s version.
Donnie Tyndall updated the status of several Vols during his first weekly Monday luncheon. Braxton Bonds‘ appeal for immediate eligibility was denied. He will have to sit out this season. Brandon Lopez, who tore his ACL in the preseason and has been rehabilitating, will not be able to return this season. Jabari McGhee could miss the remainder of the year with his surgically repaired foot and, if he’s not able to return in the next 3-4 weeks, will redshirt this year. Guard Ian Chiles has been battling a right shoulder injury and will have season-ending surgery.
That leaves the Vols with just nine available scholarship players, and 10 healthy bodies when including walk-on Galen Campbell, headed into SEC play. Tyndall likes to play nine or ten players in his system, so he won’t have much lineup flexibility moving forward, especially if someone gets in foul trouble.
The Vols play Mississippi State on Wednesday night in Starkville (9 pm ET, TV: SEC Network). Mississippi State is 7-6 this season and has a 6-2 record at home. They’re coming off a 62-55 home victory over Florida State but lost to McNeese State in their previous outing. Tennessee returns home on January 10th to host Alabama (10-3, No. 49 in the RPI). That game tips at 2 pm and will be televised by the SEC Network.
A 1-1 week should be considered a success for the Vols in their first week of SEC play under Tyndall. We’ll have game previews and recaps for you this week and will be on hand for Tennessee’s Monday afternoon practice. Look for updates from the practice floor early Monday evening.