CORY GUNKEL'S TAKE
It's hard to ask for much more from a season finale than stomping your in-state rival by 25 at home. Tennessee used a vicious ground game that compiled 331 yards agains the No. 4 rushing defense in the SEC to smash the Commodores in Neyland Stadium, getting to 8-4 and showing tangible improvement in Butch Jones' third season.
Who needs to pass when you can run for infinity yards? The Vols dashed for 331 yards on the ground with three different players collecting at least 90 rushing yards. The offense doesn't have to pass when it can just bulldoze its way past everyone without regard for their health or feelings. Josh Dobbs was efficient with the football and the run game did the rest (him included). Jalen Hurd busted out a career long 48-yard rushing touchdown to complement a 120-yard performance. It's what Tennessee does, their modus operandi if you will. Get ball. Hit hole. Run long. It works against some of the best rushing defenses in the country, as evidenced by the Vols' biggest day of the year against one of the best Ds they faced all year.
On paper, it looked like Tennessee's defense allowed Vandy to have a banner day, but two of the 'Dores four touchdowns came in garbage time and Tennessee held them to just 16 yards in the third quarter. Todd Kelly Jr. secured his second remarkable interception of the season to stifle Vanderbilt as it drove to make some noise before the half and really switched momentum if you believe in that sort of thing. Sure, Vandy had 411 yards, but as mentioned above, a good chunk of that was due to the game already being out of reach. Vandy was just 5-of-14 on third down and failed to do much of anything after the second quarter. Senior safety Brian Randolph has repeatedly said he's not a sentimental guy, but I'm sure he and his fellow defense will remember this one for a while.
Can we just say what we say about Tennessee's special teams every week in this space? They're really, really, ridiculously good. Cam Sutton returned his third punt for a touchdown, becoming the first Tennessee player with three punt returns for scores since 1996. Evan Berry really didn't get a shot to take one back himself and for good reason. Vanderbilt kicked away from him like he was Devin Hester and I don't blame Derek Mason one bit. Aaron Medley took his Alabama woes and turned them into a stretch in which he's only missed on field goal since.
This performance bodes well heading into the bowl season and puts a nice feather in the cap of a team that has proven it can win close out games and hold onto leads after failing to do so early in the year. Where will the Vols land come December/January? We won't know until next Sunday, but it could be anywhere from Tampa to Charlotte. Pack a rain coat, a swimsuit and both credit cards.
Special teams: A
DANNY PARKER'S TAKE
Complete team effort.
Tennessee completely surprised me by scoring 53 points on a Vanderbilt defense that entered ranked No. 22 in the nation in total defense. That's the most points the Commodores have given up since 2013, which is a span of 29 games. The Vols' 523 yards far surpasses the 334 per game Vandy entered allowing.
Although the Commodores posted 28 points, two of their four touchdowns came late in the fourth quarter versus Vols reserves. Ralph Webb totaled 149 on the ground and gashed the home team often.
"I believe we're one of the best teams in the country and our players believe that," Butch Jones said.
For the first time this century, Tennessee has three rushers with 600 yards or more with Jalen Hurd leading the way at 1,158, followed by Alvin Kamara at 645 and Joshua Dobbs with 623. That total by Hurd is just 35 yards behind Arian Foster's total in 2007. Difference is Hurd has that many yards in 12 games. Foster did it in 14 games.
Dobbs did what he needed to do as Tennessee's quarterback, tossing a pair of touchdowns to Von Pearson, not throwing an interception and completing 13-of-21.
Fittingly, a pair of seniors led the Big Orange in tackles as Brian Randolph had seven stops LaDarrell McNeil had five.
The staff did a classy job of letting Nate Renfro punt (47 yards) and George Bullock kick an extra point. Bullock was greeted by an excited Jones on the sideline after the PAT, which would lead me to believe that the Knoxville native is moving on after this season.
Tip of the cap to this staff and how it consistently creates advantages on special teams, evidenced by Cameron Sutton's 85-yard punt return for a score.
The announced attendance was 98,327. Neyland Stadium had its highest average since 100,584 came per game in 2008.
"It's all about protecting Neyland Stadium," Jones said.
Special teams: A+
JOSH WOODWARD'S TAKE
When you can get over 300 yards rushing from two running backs and a quarterback, I doubt you will lose to many ballgames. This is one of the best rushing performances I have seen in my lifetime at Tennessee.
Offensively, the Vols did everything they needed to do. The tempo and execution was on point. The only complaint is being in the shotgun on fourth-and-inches at the goal line. Joshua Dobbs is an equalizer when he is healthy and can run the ball. I liked how the staff used Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd on the wheel routes. Vanderbilt didn't have an answer for that. The way the offense played tonight they could beat anyone.
Defensively, they were on their heals in the first half. They adjusted really well for the second half and held Vanderbilt to only a couple of garbage scores in the late 4th quarter. Derek Barnett is fully healthy and killing offensive linemen. He is such an NFL talent. If the Vols only had Shy Tuttle this would be one of the best defenses we have seen in years.
Special teams need a standing ovation. I'm not sure if I have ever seen Tennessee this good on special teams. Aaron Medley has been on point since the Alabama game and Cameron Sutton is the real deal returning punts. I hope Evan Berry is okay after what was said to be a concussion on one of the returns.