Last season concluded with a 10-7 loss at Kentucky in which several Vols went through the motions and several more basically quit. Derek Dooley's honeymoon officially ended that day, and fans spent the entire offseason in a funk.
Conversely, this season concluded with a 37-17 drubbing of Kentucky in which none of the players went through the motions and none quit. Fans appreciated the perseverance and heart the team showed. They're excited about the search for a successor to Dooley, who was fired a week ago due to a 15-21 overall record and a 4-19 SEC mark in three seasons on The Hill. Counting Saturday's defeat of Kentucky, achieved under interim coach Jim Chaney, Dooley's record at UT finishes 16-21 overall and 5-19 in the league.
Many fans will look back on the Dooley era as the Dooley error. They believe the next three years have to be better than the past three, and they are correct to do so. Dooley was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Tennessee is still a ways from being a quality football team, especially if juniors Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson choose the NFL Draft over their senior seasons of collegiate eligibility. Still, the next head coach will assume a better roster than the one Lane Kiffin inherited four years ago and the one Dooley inherited three years ago.
What I'm saying is, there is light at the end of the tunnel … especially if Tennessee brings in the right head coach this time.
Where the game was won
Leading 20-14 at intermission, Tennessee surrendered just three second-half points. This enabled the Vols to pull away and win comfortably. That was a significant accomplishment for a Big Orange defense that routinely self-destructed in the third and fourth quarters of previous games.
The big picture
Beating a woeful Kentucky team to cap a 5-7 season does not have Vol fans dancing in the streets. Still, finishing a 5-7 season on a solid win will make the coming months a heck of a lot more palatable than finishing a 4-8 season on a loss would have.
Players of the game
All he did was lead the Vols in receiving yards (88 on four catches), average 19.0 yards on two scrimmage carries and create great field position all afternoon by frightening Kentucky into an assortment of squib kicks, bloop kicks and even an on-sides kick. He still managed to return two kickoffs for 32 yards. Patterson knew he'd catch passes and return kicks at Tennessee but he wasn't expecting to carry the ball on end-arounds and pitch plays.
"I'm pretty glad it happened; you go out there and see the special things you can do," he said. "Coach Chaney did a heck of a job, using me as many ways as he could."
For a guy with virtually no experience as a ball-carrier, Patterson looked awfully comfortable in that role the past few weeks. The adjustment to getting the ball in the backfield proved no problem.
"It wasn't that tough," he said. "I pretty much like it – getting that touch, finding that hole and just trying to get to the end zone."
So, how different is getting the ball behind the line on a pitch play, as opposed to getting it downfield on a pass reception?
"It's a lot different because you've got the whole defense coming at you," he said. "You just try to follow your block and find a hole."
Defense: Jordan Williams
The sophomore made his five tackles count, recording three minus-yardage stops, including a sack. After starting his career at defensive end, he appears to be finding a home at Jack linebacker.
"As the year has gone by I've definitely gotten a lot more comfortable," he said. "I think it showed today."
Williams' sack was one of four the Vols posted. That was a surprise, given how little pressure Tennessee exerted on opposing passers in the previous 11 games. The obvious question: What was the difference in Game 12?
"We've been working on it for a while," Williams said of the pass rush. "We knew we had to get after him, and I think we did."
Tennessee simplified its defense in November, and that apparently helped upgrade the pass rush.
"It helps a lot," Williams said. "There's not much to think about. Everyone's just going one-on-one with another man."
Hiring a new head coach, then recruiting like crazy through National Signing Day.
Jim Chaney after the game