Bowl eligibility is a sign that Heupel is “putting Tennessee back on track”

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KNOXVILLE – The Tennessee Volunteers began this calendar year with a coaching transition following Jeremy Pruitt’s abrupt dismissal, which resulted in a mass exodus of talented players through the NCAA transfer portal.

Outside expectations were tempered for Josh Heupel’s first season, as a bowl game seemed like a high draw.

Tennessee hit their playoff ticket Saturday night at Neyland Stadium and did so emphatically, dismantling South Alabama 60-14 to go to 6-5 on aggregate with Vanderbilt arriving next weekend. The Vols racked up 561 yards and passed the Sun Belt Conference Jaguars (5-6), keeping them at 285 yards.

Heupel’s two predecessors, Pruitt and Butch Jones, failed to reach a bowl in their inaugural seasons.

“It’s definitely important,” Heupel said. “It might sound strange, but I don’t think there was anyone in our program that focused on that part of it. That’s not what I talked about, and I don’t think so. that is what was our goal from our players, he was really on us and kept growing and competing.

“It continues to build on the momentum we’ve had over the season.”

Saturday’s triumph came in front of a crowd of 75,203 at the low of the season, which was largely the result of the Southeast Conference moving the end-November game to 7:30 a.m. so that it can be televised by ESPNU.

Tennessee essentially scored touchdowns on their first seven possessions, which doesn’t include Velus Jones’ return from the 96-yard kickoff with 1:18 remaining before halftime that put the Flights to 35- 7. This also does not include the Vols who recover the ball with 14 seconds remaining in the half.

Jones finished with 246 all-purpose yards, recording six receptions for 103 yards, the kickoff return of 96 yards and three punt returns for 47 yards.

“It’s a blessing to have a bowl game, especially the experience you get for young people and what’s still to come for this college,” Jones said. “Coach Heupel is getting Tennessee back on track, and I’m just happy to be a part of that foundation.”

Quarterback Hendon Hooker said on the explosive night, “Our goal is to get the punter out.”

Tennessee’s most likely playoff destinations are Charlotte, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida or Nashville, but that speculation can wait. The Vols just know they’re going somewhere.

“I know things might not have looked so good on the outside, but we never really had any doubts with this team,” said senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler. “In my heart, I believed we could win every game and win the national championship. That’s not how it turned out, but I never had the slightest doubt in this team.”

Photo gallery

Tennessee vs. South Alabama on November 20, 2021

Contrasting styles

Tennessee had no chance of winning possession time on Saturday night, as the Jaguars deliberately took playing time under five seconds before slamming the ball.

“It was pretty funny, because they were getting together, and I’m kind of waiting for the play call,” Butler said. “I’m out there in my head thinking, ‘What’s taking so long? Then they’d get their signal and stand in line, and I was just like, “What’s taking so long?” Then they would end up slamming the ball.

“I’m actually quite grateful for that, to be honest with you, because we obviously played fast attacks.”

The Vols produced their 72 games in just 23 minutes, while South Alabama played 69 games with the other 37 minutes.

“I’m not sure they’ve played this slowly this season,” Heupel said. “We knew they were heavy with change and movement and that they would adjust things, and the style of play was the style of play. We understood from the start that we were going to have to maximize our training and our opportunities on the attacking side. balloon. “

Day plans for seniors?

Hooker completed 17 of 20 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns in what may have been his penultimate performance at Neyland Stadium. The transfer of Virginia Tech graduates has been asked if they plan to participate in the Seniors Day festivities ahead of next Saturday’s regular season final against the visiting Commodores.

“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “I just take it day to day.”

Wright’s Stuff

Freshman running back Jaylen Wright led Tennessee with 83 yards on 13 carries, scoring a 17-yard touchdown at 6:14 of the first quarter to give the Vols a 14-0 lead.

Junior-college transfer Tiyon Evans missed his second straight game since injuring his ankle in the first half of the win at Kentucky on November 6. Sophomore Jabari Small took the start and had 11 carries for 73 yards and two scores.

“With Tiyon not being available here in recent weeks, Jaylen’s growth has been significant,” Heupel said. “He continues to grow as a football player. I obviously didn’t watch the tape, but tonight was probably his best football game in some ways. I thought he did some good things.”

Hooker said, “He comes in with the right frame of mind every day. He’s a young man, so the sky’s the limit, honestly.”

Defensive saves

The Vols entered the nation’s 125th place on Saturday’s third-down defense, giving their opponents a conversion rate of 47.9%. Southern Alabama was only 1 of 16 on the third try, so Tennessee should improve in that category.

“I think our guys did a good job of matching some things in some of our male blankets,” Heupel said. “We communicated and managed some of the choice routes and then we put pressure on the quarterback. It was a big part of the football game for us.”

Tennessee also racked up 13 tackles for a loss, with Kurott Garland and Theo Jackson scoring two apiece. The 13 stops with loss of distance totaled 88 yards.

“I thought we had changed the line of scrimmage tonight,” Heupel said.

Tips

Junior Redshirt wide receiver Cedric Tillman scored a touchdown in his fifth straight game, the first flight to achieve the feat since Josh Malone in 2016.… Cade Mays had a walking boot on his left foot after the game. … Heupel on tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant, who combined seven receptions and 73 yards with Fant scoring a touchdown: “These guys continue to be a big part of what we do.”

Contact David Paschall at [email protected] or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.



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