The No. 23 Tennessee Volunteers will line up against the No. 13 Northwestern Wildcats in Friday’s Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Few would have predicted such a matchup earlier, but Tennessee’s appearance was more of a long shot not that long ago.
In early October even the most diehard Tennessee Volunteer fan – and there are plenty of those – had to wonder whether their team might spiral into a losing season. They were 2-3 with crushing losses at home to Oklahoma and to Florida at The Swamp. In both losses, the Vols coughed up double digit leads in the fourth quarter.
They were the talk of SportsCenter. Many questioned their character.
Things got worse on Rocky Top the next week when they lost to a struggling Arkansas team at home, 24-20. Again, Tennessee led by two touchdowns at one point.
“Too many missed tackles, but really at the end of the day and what it takes to play winning football, we just weren’t able to make big plays at big moments of the game,” Tennessee Coach Butch Jones said after the Arkansas disappointment.
Facing mounting adversity, Tennessee not only salvaged their season the next week, they turned it around and turned into a different team. They fell behind the Georgia Bulldogs 24-3, but had the fortitude and the will to find a way to win, 38-31. They also made the types of big plays Jones was longing for.
Now feeling good about themselves, the Volunteers went into Tuscaloosa and gave Alabama all they wanted. It took a touchdown run by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry with 2:24 remaining to allow the Tide to escape with a 19-14 victory.
Tennessee would not lose again. Once 2-3, the Vols finished 8-4 and ranked No. 23 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The athletic administration is clearly pleased not just to be in Tampa for the Outback Bowl, but what has happened to get them there.
“Butch Jones has our football program moving in the right direction and, playing in back-to-back New Year’s bowl games in Florida is further verification of the progress that is being made,” said Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Dave Hart. They defeated Iowa in last year’s Tax Slayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
Since early October, it’s Tennessee who is making the big plays, not the other way around. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd and a committee of receivers are making big plays on offense. The defense has gotten better as the season progressed.
No matter how the season ends after the Outback Bowl on Friday, it truly began for the Tennessee Volunteers on that October afternoon in Knoxville against Georgia.