KNOXVILLE — It should be no surprise that a football team with a defensive-minded head coach would have a quality defense.
But that doesn't make what Tennessee did over the final half of the regular season any less impressive.
The Volunteers' early struggles in coach Jeremy Pruitt's second season are well documented, with losses to Georgia State and BYU littered with mistakes on the side of the ball where Pruitt specialized as a coordinator at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia before taking over at Tennessee.
Instead of late August and early September, those defeats now seem like they happened years ago, thanks to the five-game winning streak the Vols take into the postseason. While the good run has been blessed with notable offensive performances — including Jarrett Guarantano's 415 passing yards against Missouri and a 297-yard rushing performance against Vanderbilt led by Eric Gray's Southeastern Conference freshman-record 246 yards — it has been mostly predicated on defense.
Since a 35-13 loss at Alabama, the Vols have given up averages of 14.2 points and 304.0 yards per game. Tennessee's defense ranks seventh in the SEC in both categories, but those numbers would rank second and third, respectively, if the Vols had posted them throughout the season.
What the Vols have done in recent games is make opposing offenses one-dimensional — at best — which is what Pruitt did during his time as a coordinator.
South Carolina had 319 passing yards but was held to just 78 rushing yards on 30 carries. The University of Alabama at Birmingham rushed for 63 yards on 25 carries, and the Vols also forced four turnovers in the 30-7 win. Kentucky was effective on the ground with 302 yards but threw for only 25. Neither Missouri nor Vanderbilt topped 300 yards of total offense with anemic passing attacks and poor running games.
"I would say communication," safety Nigel Warrior said when asked what changed over the course of the season. "We're big on communication, and communication is key. Being able to talk to each other, what we see, what we feel out there, it helps fill the grey areas that's on the field that we didn't see before. Also, I would say our coaches. They put us in great positions to go make plays. We just have to make those plays."
The Vols have only three senior starters on defense — Warrior, inside linebacker Daniel Bituli and outside linebacker Darrell Taylor — but they've all been instrumental for a unit that doesn't have much experience. The rest of the group has leaned on the three while making it a priority to ensure the season didn't end after the 12th game, which would have concluded the Tennessee careers of 13 seniors.
"Just realizing the little mistakes we're making," freshman linebacker Henry To'o To'o said. "Coming together as one and telling each other that we play for each other — that's the biggest thing. Playing as a family. Just doing everything you can for the seniors like (wide receiver) Marquez (Callaway) and letting these guys go out with a bang. We all just lead together and made a promise to each other that we'll do our best in everything we do."
Now all the Vols (7-5) can do is sit back and wait for next Sunday, when they will learn their bowl destination. Multiple ESPN projections have them playing Minnesota in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida, while one CBS Sports projection has Tennessee at the Music City Bowl. Their most recent bowl appearance also took them to Nashville, with the Vols beating Nebraska 38-24 in December 2016.
Wherever they play, the Vols will try to continue their progress.
"Well, the way we're playing now is what I saw in August, but you have to go play that way on Saturdays," Pruitt said. "I thought we had a chance to have a good football team. We stubbed our toe a little bit early on; that's nobody's fault but mine. But the kids stuck together, and it's good to see all the hard work and effort and the things that they do paying off for them. We have lots of momentum. Our kids are excited about being at Tennessee. They're excited about the future. I'm excited about it.
"I'm looking forward to bowl practice so we can continue to develop as a football team. We have a long way to go to where we want to get to, and we want to finish. We have one more opportunity to finish, and that's something that we're going to focus on."