For the seniors who had been at UT the previous three years, they had a 17-20 overall record coming into the 2015 season with just one bowl game to show for it. The fifth-year seniors were 23-27 with two bowl appearances and just one postseason win. Many of the would-be seniors on this team have left, been kicked off the team or just didn’t make it for one reason or another.
And it would be fair early in 2015 to question their ability to win as well.
Starting off 3-4 with meltdown losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas wasn’t an ideal beginning to the end for the 17 seniors on UT’s roster. They could’ve packed it in and seen 2015 as yet another mediocre-to-poor season. It was, after all, what they had become accustomed to in Knoxville.
But this group kept fighting. It wasn’t always pretty. The Vols put together a four-game winning streak over the prior four weeks that had its share of ugly moments – including a near-meltdown against South Carolina, an underwhelming 24-0 win over North Texas and a methodical, though not flashy win at Missouri last week. When UT twice built a 10-point lead in the first half and saw Vanderbilt respond with scores both times, this game could’ve gone the way that so many others did for these seniors.
With a lot of help from their underclassman teammates, they refused to let that happen. Senior Brian Randolph led the way with seven tackles. Senior Von Pearson scored two touchdowns. Seniors Kyler Kerbyson and Mack Crowder kept blocking. Tennessee finally put on more steam – burying a pesky Vanderbilt team by a final of 53-28 in a game that the final score maybe didn’t even indicate the level of dominance the Vols showed.
“I’m just proud of the resolve and the resiliency of this football team, particularly led by our senior class,” Butch Jones said after the game. “This is a team that did not let adversity define who we are. They just kept grinding, building it, and putting their head down – just working their consistency in approach every day.”
Tennessee wasn’t fazed by Vandy cutting it to 17-14 early in the second quarter. That’s when the Vols put together one of their best stretches of football of the season, scoring the next 36 points in the game before the Commodores added a couple late touchdowns against UT reserves. They did it with long drives such as the 10-play effort in the third quarter. They also did it with dynamic plays such as Cam Sutton’s 85-yard punt return. The run game was elite – piling up 331 yards on 52 carries and almost producing three 100-yard rushers for just the second time in school history.
Most importantly, they finished. The garbage-time touchdown from Vanderbilt did nothing to diminish UT’s offensive outburst against one of the better defenses, statistically speaking, in the SEC. It was the most points anybody has scored against the Commodores all season. It was the most points Tennessee has scored against Vanderbilt since 1994.
“I’m just really proud of our players, particularly our seniors,” Jones said. “We talked about finishing. Everything in our program is based off of finishing, and we’re learning how to finish…That was a great defense, allowing 18 points per game. The third quarter was very, very big. We outgained them 201 [yards] to 15. We had 12 plays of over 15 yards. Just a complete win. I do think that this is one of the best stories in all of college football, with a young football team coupled with a resilient group of seniors, and how far we’ve come. I’m just proud of them.
“You go through football seasons, and sometimes some of them go slow and some of them go fast. Just talking with these kids, it’s hard to believe that the regular season is over with. It’s one of those years, and the momentum that we have, you don’t want it to end. That’s a tribute to these kids. It’s a tribute to everyone in our football organization.”
The seniors helped the Vols to their highest win total since the 2007 season. An attractive bowl destination likely awaits, and UT is clearly on better footing as a program than is has been in several years. Beating teams like Vanderbilt isn’t the ultimate goal for this Tennessee program, but the seniors have helped put UT in position to reach that next plateau in 2016 and beyond.
The seniors may not be there to reap all the benefits, but if UT continues to go in the direction it appears to be headed, they can know they played a huge role in helping the program learn how to win.
“It’s a great honor to be able to finish out a season like that,” said senior offensive lineman Mack Crowder. “I believe coach said that we haven’t done something like that since 2007. Being able to be a part of that senior class that has helped to bring Tennessee back to being in one of its rightful places, and one of the best teams in college football right now. It’s just a great honor to be a part of that.”