Vanderbilt's dominating win over Tennessee does not sweep away all the disappointments of the 2017 football campaign - but it sure helps a lot.
The offense, in particular, rose to the occasion in Knoxville - rolling up 42 points, 529 yards, 33 first downs, and an answer after each Tennessee score. The o-line was dominant and the offense worked both by land and by air. We executed well and mixed in enough misdirection to keep the Vols off-balance - when Kalijah Lipscomb caught the flea flicker touchdown there was no Vol defender within 20 yards. (It looked like we planned another double throw trick play later that got short-circuited via penalty.)
Kyle Shurmur threw for 283 yards and 4 touchdowns - and that did not include the long TD bomb that was called back on a formation technicality. Shurmur was in total command and short check-downs seemed to be open all day. It was a refreshing reminder of how good he can be when he is not under siege. Ralph Webb galloped for 163 yards into sixth place all-time in SEC rushing yardage. He also eclipsed Zac Stacy's Vanderbilt career rushing touchdown record. Shurmur, for his part, smashed Vandy's single-season TD passing record with 26 on the year.
It was a nice send-off for Webb and the senior receivers. Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan turned in big games. Much of the offense returns next year - and that is encouraging. Especially if we continue to mix things up in play-calling as we did in Knoxville. As a sign of our offensive prowess on this day, Sam Loy punted exactly once. We won time of possession 38:15 to 21:45.
The defense also deserves praise for its efforts - but the game did not start well for Vandy's defenders. UT's maligned offense raced for impressive touchdown drives on each of its first two possessions - covering 160 yards. The Vols would be held to 78 total yards the rest of the game - and when it mattered, Vandy held UT to one yard in the second quarter and only 24 yards in the third.
Rather than folding up like a card table after the early misses, the defense stiffened when the braintrust decided to bring heat on young Vol QB Jarrett Guarantano who was sacked, hurried and held in check the rest of the way. As Coach Mason probably draws it up on his "aspirational chalkboard," the best defense can sometimes be a well-oiled, ball control offense. UT only ran 43 offensive plays in this game - a stunningly low number. After falling behind 14-7, Vandy went on a 35-3 tear that left the Vol crowd heading for the turnstiles.
While Vandy's defense held the Vols to 24 points - its best performance by far in SEC play - the squad nonetheless did break the all-time SEC record for points allowed in an SEC season. This will remain an enigma - as the senior-laden group gave up a stingy 7.5 points per game to talented non-conference foes (including 3 bowl-eligible squads); but allowed over 40 points per game to SEC opponents. We will not indict the "smashmouth" scheme for this on such a happy occasion - but it does seem more challenged in SEC play. This win left Coach Mason's record at 6-26 in SEC play. He has, however, beaten Tennessee twice in a row - and is 18-31 over-all.
The defense bids farewell to a bevy of well-decorated starters who started the year in dominating fashion. There will be much to replace - including regular contributors Nifae Lealao, Oren Burks, Ryan White, Ladarius Wiley, Emmanuel Smith, Jay Woods, Jonathan Wynn, Taurean Ferguson, Tre Herndon and Arnold Tarpley III. There is some star power returning - but we need to fix some schematic problems that left the defense struggling for much of conference play. If we are going to compete next year, a lot of newcomers are going to need to produce immediately.
A year ago, 5-7 would have sent us bowling. This year - it doesn't. But there is a big, big difference between 5-7 and a conference o-fer. This season ended on a positive which was much needed for both fan sanity and recruiting purposes. This team will be remembered for beating UT twice in a row and for the exhilarating 3-0 start that raised expectations (unfortunately to unrealistic heights.) Then Bama showed up and laid a particularly cruel beating on us - a massacre that proved very hard to shake. And so it goes karma-wise: sometimes in doling out misery, the best team in the land forgets how to deal with adversity itself when it finally arises - and has to watch other teams play just to see if they can backdoor into the play-offs. And sometimes a crushing loss on national television can plant seeds of doubt that rock your confidence and end up beating you three or four times. I'm afraid, ultimately, that is a major story-line of this season. But, at least, the ending leaves some hope.