A really fun step over the course of a rebuild is The Beat Down: your team has taken a few of those themselves, but now they’re ready and willing to put one on someone else (with a pulse). It kind of happened for Tennessee in 2014, when Josh Dobbs and the Vols beat Kentucky 50-16. But Dobbs was such a revelation against South Carolina the week before, that game still felt like the bigger story a week later. It kind of happened for Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols against Kentucky last season, but then the final two games tainted those memories and left us firmly in stage one or year zero or whatever you like.
So in a sense, the best examples we have of The Beat Down post-Kiffin/Crompton/Georgia came in bowl games: Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl, then Northwestern in the Outback Bowl in consecutive years. Both times, those beat downs rightly foreshadowed seasons that had every opportunity to be special, though the Vols ultimately missed those moments for different reasons in 2015 and 2016. Bowls are the aftertaste, and can outlast the season’s body of work. The Beat Down is more appropriately applied when it happens in the regular season.
Tennessee beat Missouri by four points. The Tigers blocked two field goals, scored on a well-designed trick play, and recovered a Tim Jordan fumble inside their 30 yard line, to their credit.
To Tennessee’s credit, the Vols gained 526 yards in 73 plays, 7.21 yards per play. Missouri gained 280 yards in 66 plays, 4.24 yards per play. Both of those per-play numbers are the best the Vol offense and defense have done against FBS competition this season. The last time Tennessee out-gained a power five opponent by more than 246 yards was the aforementioned 2014 Kentucky game (+249).
So yeah, we missed The Beat Down, but would enjoy it very much if it showed up Saturday against Vanderbilt. After being underdogs against every power five foe post-BYU, the Vols opened at -20 against the Commodores. Tennessee has covered the spread six weeks in a row for the first time since at least 1990 (via the closing lines at covers.com). We’d have a lot of fun making it seven.
But as long as there’s any positive margin against Vanderbilt, the performance against Missouri should be remembered. Tennessee, on the road against a team with an elite statistical defense and a two-game winning streak by identical 50-17 scores in this series, dominated.
The only opportunity to get a marquee win in this streak was Alabama; the Vols got plenty of juice out of that one anyway. But now, with 7-5 on the horizon, January in Florida seems far more likely than not. And with it could come a match-up against a ranked foe, giving the 2019 Vols a chance to level up before passing the baton to their 2020 brethren.
More on that later. For now, consider how this story is more than just what the Vols have done since losing to Georgia State, BYU, and getting embarrassed at Florida.
- The Vols went 7-5 in 2009 and 8-4 in 2015 & 2016. Those are the only three seasons with 7+ regular season wins in 12 tries since 2008. Beat Vanderbilt, and these Vols will make it four.
- Beat Vanderbilt and win the bowl game, and 8-5 will be the third-best finish behind the two 9-4 seasons under Butch Jones since 2008.
- Beat Vanderbilt, and the Vols will go 4-0 against South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt for just the second time (2015) since the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012.
- Beat Vanderbilt, and the Vols will have five SEC wins for just the second time (2015) since 2008.
So yes, beat Vanderbilt. But when we do, don’t forget this performance. And don’t be tempted to believe this season is only progress when viewed through the lens of Georgia State. That loss will always be part of this team and Jeremy Pruitt’s story. It has a chance to be more beneficial than anything now. But the opportunity before this team to check off preseason goals and possibly earn a marquee test on January 1 would’ve been progress from the rest of this 12-year hiatus under any circumstances. Turning in a performance like last night’s is both icing on the cake, and a sign of what else could be.