Vols still have 10 wins, New Year’s Six bowl game in their sights

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Junior receiver Jalin Hyatt and the Tennessee Volunteers will look to bounce back from last weekend’s stunning loss at South Carolina when they visit rejuvenated Vanderbilt on Saturday night.

The Tennessee Volunteers were eliminated from the Southeastern Conference championship race two weeks ago when Georgia clinched the Eastern Division with a win at Mississippi State.

They were bounced from the national championship picture last weekend, when their College Football Playoff hopes were dashed in a 63-38 upset loss at South Carolina.

The only title left for Tennessee is the unofficial one on the state level, and that will be decided Saturday night when the Vols (9-2, 5-2 SEC) visit Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5). The Vols are 10th in the CFP rankings and could clinch their first 10-win regular season since 2003, while the Commodores are seeking bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018.

"This is a big game," Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel said. "It's one of the games that's circled by a big portion of our fan base. It's obviously an in-state game, and it's just important that we go finish this off the right way.

"We still have a lot of things that we're playing for. First and foremost, this is our next opportunity to go play together, so we're looking forward to that opportunity."

Though Tennessee has trended in the wrong direction since entering November with an 8-0 record and atop the CFP rankings, a New Year's Six bowl would go a long way in easing the pain and frustration of last week's showing. A 10th win likely would likely place the Vols in either the Cotton, Orange or Sugar bowls, which have become foreign territories for this tradition-rich program.

Tennessee last played in a Cotton Bowl after the 2004 season, an Orange Bowl after the 1997 season and a Sugar Bowl after the 1990 season.

"Coach Heupel stated in the team meeting on Sunday that we still have a lot to play for," junior running back Jabari Small said. "Getting 10 wins is something that has not been done in a long time. We have a lot to play for, and those are some bowl games that we are very excited about getting the opportunity to play in."

The Vols were in a similar position in 2016, when they defeated Florida and Georgia on their way to a 5-0 start and were 8-3 headed to Nashville. A win at Vanderbilt would have resulted in a trip to the Sugar Bowl, but the Commodores won 45-34, which resulted in Auburn going to New Orleans to play Oklahoma as Tennessee settled for a shorter trip to the Music City Bowl to face Nebraska.

Tennessee followed up a disappointing end to its 2016 season by imploding in 2017, but this season's Vols are looking to make last Saturday's result a complete aberration and not the beginning of a fall from the national rankings. There also has been a questioning of the team's dynamic after fifth-year senior linebacker Jeremy Banks didn't make the trip to Columbia for reasons Heupel hasn't revealed.

On Tuesday night's CFP rankings show, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said of the Vols, "They're fighting amongst themselves in the locker room. Things are not good right now in Knoxville," but Tennessee players have publicly provided a unified front.

"I don't think it was an issue last week, and I don't think it's an issue this week," junior center Cooper Mays said. "I think they just came out and played better ball than us that night. It showed in the score. I can't say it's about team chemistry. I think it was just them playing better than us."

Said Small: "The most important thing is just making sure the locker room is good and making sure we all know how to respond from it, because everything is not going to go well. You are going to hit adversity, but what defines a person, a man and a team is how you respond from adversity."

Hobbs commits

Tennessee landed its 23rd commitment for the 2023 signing cycle Friday afternoon, receiving a nonbinding pledge from four-star defensive lineman Daevin Hobbs of Concord, North Carolina.

The 6-foot-4, 277-pounder is the nation’s No. 11 defensive lineman and the No. 95 prospect overall in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

Updated with more information at 6:10 p.m. on Nov. 25, 2022