Tennessee 31 Clemson 14: Sunrise

There is, on one hand, a finality to bowl games. The story of your season is now closed, the aftertaste settling in. And even a top-tier bowl’s ability to endure on its own merits will soon pivot hard to the 12-team playoff, where a game like #6 Tennessee vs #7 Clemson would take place, much to everyone’s preference.

So in some ways, this Orange Bowl win is already a relic. It already belonged on a list of the highest-ranked bowl match-ups the Vols have participated in since 1985, topped only by Tennessee’s peak from 1995-99. And in victory, it joins Happy New Years like Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl from that 1995 season, or beating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl following 1989. A Top 10 win to put the exclamation point on your year.

But the story of this particular season is tied up to so many others. A stubborn, beautiful interconnectedness of college football, and maybe all sports. So there are a thousand stories to be told about how this team separated itself from the last 15 years. But there are a thousand more about how they also positioned themselves alongside the best of Tennessee’s best.

Eleven wins separates you by itself. In my lifetime, that’s 1989, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001, and now 2022. There’s also who made up those 11; in Tennessee’s case, wins over six ranked teams ties the program record from 1998.

If you’re looking for the most impressive company this team can now keep, I think it’s this:

Multiple Top 7 Wins at Tennessee since 1965

  • 1985: #1 Auburn, #2 Miami
  • 1989: #6 UCLA, #4 Auburn
  • 1998: #2 Florida, #7 Georgia, #2 Florida State
  • 2022: #3 Alabama, #7 Clemson

There are words to be said about Joe Milton, and we’ll have an entire off-season to do more of that. Some of them will include how spoiled we quickly become, when a performance hitting nine yards per attempt with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Clemson is viewed as, “Pretty good start, maybe some room for improvement.”

He’ll enter spring practice as QB1, and be joined by an infusion of talent on both sides of the ball. It is, of course, too early to say exactly what that will look like on either side. But one more word here, for this defense, the 2022 version.

In the next-to-last game of the regular season, Tennessee gave up nine touchdowns in ten drives at South Carolina. The Gamecocks are still better than we thought at the time, despite their Gator Bowl loss yesterday. How high is their September 30 visit on your most-looked-forward-to-games list next year?

But before it all becomes about next year, in the two remaining games of this one? With questions about the culture circling, the Vol defense returned one surprise for another. Vanderbilt scored zero points in 14 drives. Then Clemson, in their 14 drives, scored a single touchdown. Twenty-eight drives, one touchdown. Believe that.

Believe is the word, now etched both in stone and our hearts. The primary work of this team was already done before the Orange Bowl, and no negative outcome could take away Tennessee’s proximity to “back”, or our belief that this program can make a 12-team playoff.

But a win – this win – gives even more sight to faith. This morning, in thinking about the finality of Tennessee’s 2022 season, I find myself even more grateful for the ways it already has been transformative, and could continue to be into the future. In the last 15 years, we’ve caught brief glimpses of the promised land; maybe they were a mirage, maybe they were a sliver of the real thing. In 2009 when Lane Kiffin’s team beat Georgia, we could tell ourselves maybe we never really left. In 2011 when Tennessee’s offense looked so incredible for 60 minutes against Cincinnati, only to lose two of its best players to injury immediately after. And those six weeks in 2016, when we were most convinced we were crossing over and thus most disappointed when we ultimately didn’t.

And then this team, including more than a handful of players who stayed through our most uncertain times to come. This team, who played well enough last year to make us believe we might catch a glimpse of it in the off-season. This team, who rejected the notion that this program was ever in exile, left the wilderness with the quickness, then needed no bridge to cross directly into the promised land.

Just one more year ahead, it will be a land flowing with 12-team brackets, Texas and Oklahoma, and nine game SEC schedules. It will not only look different, but feel it, all our rhythms adjusting to a new reality and new definitions of fruitfulness. New opportunities to chase the biggest prize of all.

And this team – this team – made us believe we can do it. First by faith, then by sight. And, after last night? More than ever.

Go Vols.

Comments are closed.