KNOXVILLE — Just 13 and a half months after rising to a No. 9 national ranking, the Tennessee football program hit an all-time low on Saturday, courtesy of an instate rival that it once dominated on brisk November evenings like this.
Vanderbilt entered Neyland Stadium on Saturday winless in the Southeastern Conference but looked like the superior team in a 42-24 win over the Volunteers that brought a surreal ending to one of the worst seasons in Tennessee history.
Commodores quarterback Kyle Shurmur torched the Tennessee defense for the second year in a row, throwing four touchdown passes while sinking the Vols to a final record of 4-8 (0-8 SEC).
It's the first time since the Vols started playing football in 1891 that they have lost eight games in a season and the first time since they joined the SEC that they have gone winless in league play.
After losing to Vanderbilt just once from 1983 to 2011, Tennessee has fallen to the Commodores four times in the past six seasons.
"We're sad," Tennessee senior linebacker Colton Jumper said. "We knew we'd give it our all, and you hate to come out with a loss, especially in your last game against a rival. But then you've got to get back on the horse and put it behind you."
Jumper, a Baylor School graduate, was one of 22 players honored during senior night festivities before the game.
The Vols scored on their first two possessions with redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano directing consecutive scoring drives of 85 and 75 yards, respectively. Marquez Callaway put Tennessee ahead 7-0 with 10:06 remaining in the first quarter when he capped a nine-play drive with a one-handed touchdown catch from Guarantano in the corner of the end zone.
Vanderbilt countered with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Shurmur's 9-yard pass to C.J. Duncan.
Consecutive passes to Brandon Johnson of 18 and 33 yards sparked Tennessee's second series that John Kelly finished with a 1-yard touchdown run with 2:50 left in the first quarter to put the Vols ahead 14-7.
That was the score at the end of the first quarter, and then Tennessee's offense hit a snag. It mustered just 27 total yards in the second and third quarters while Vanderbilt extended its lead to 21-14 at halftime.
Tennessee kicker Aaron Medley accounted for the only third-quarter scoring with a 49-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the period, and then the onslaught began.
Vanderbilt scored 21 consecutive points in the fourth quarter before Guarantano passed to senior tight end Ethan Wolf for a 20-yard touchdown when the game was out of reach. Just a smattering of the announced crowd of 83,117 remained as Tennessee's seniors ran off the field for the final time.
"It hurts as a coach for those 22 seniors who have played their last football at Tennessee," interim Vols coach Brady Hoke said. "Obviously, being in Neyland Stadium as a coach you always look at yourself first. We needed to all do a better job. That's the first thing. It starts there."
Hoke said he and Tennessee's assistants will continue recruiting on behalf of the Vols, even as athletic director John Currie continues his search for the program's next head coach.
The Vols were outscored 72-34 in Hoke's two games at the helm following the firing of Butch Jones on Nov. 12.
Currie's announcement of the next coach could come as early as the next few days, although several coaches believed to be in consideration for the job will be coaching in conference championship games this Saturday and presumably would be unavailable this week.
The departing senior class leaves Tennessee with a four-year record of 29-22 and three bowl victories. Tennessee began last season 5-0 under Jones and rose to No. 9 in the country with a 34-31 win at Georgia before losing four of its final seven regular-season games.
It entered the 2017 campaign with diminished expectations though few predicted such a monumental collapse.
"I'm not really worried about the talent that's on this team, because we are a talented team," redshirt senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said after his 39th consecutive and final start. "Whover the coach is going to be, guys just have to buy in and believe everything the coaches are preaching. At the end of the day, it's going to be on the players to do that and be able to lead themselves and be a player-led team."
Jumper had three tackles in his final game, bringing the former walk-on's career total to 126.
"There's a whole lot of talent here, and this place is something special," he said. "You're not going to see Tennessee down for too long, for sure. This is a premier program and we'll be back on top soon."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.