KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee Volunteers began this calendar year with a coaching transition following the abrupt firing of Jeremy Pruitt, which helped result in a mass exodus of talented players via the NCAA transfer portal.
Outside expectations were tempered for Josh Heupel's debut season, as a bowl game seemed quite the lofty aspiration.
Tennessee punched its postseason ticket Saturday night at Neyland Stadium and did so emphatically, dismantling South Alabama 60-14 to improve to 6-5 overall with Vanderbilt arriving next weekend. The Vols racked up 561 yards and overwhelmed the Sun Belt Conference's Jaguars (5-6), holding them to 285 yards.
Heupel's two predecessors, Pruitt and Butch Jones, failed to reach a bowl in their inaugural seasons.
"It's important for sure," Heupel said. "This may sound odd, but I don't think there was anybody in our program that was focused on that part of it. It's not what I talked about, and I don't think that's what our focus was from our players. It was truly on us and continuing to grow and compete.
Saturday's triumph transpired before a season-low crowd of 75,203, which was largely the result of the Southeastern Conference moving the late November game to 7:30 so it could be televised by ESPNU.
Tennessee essentially scored touchdowns on its first seven possessions, which doesn't include the 96-yard kickoff return by Velus Jones with 1:18 remaining before halftime that put the Vols up 35-7. It also doesn't include the Vols getting the ball back with 14 seconds left in the half.
Jones wound up with 246 all-purpose yards, collecting six receptions for 103 yards, the 96-yard kickoff return and three punt returns for 47 yards.
"It's a blessing to get a bowl game, especially the experience you get for the young guys and what's yet to come for this university," Jones said. "Coach Heupel is getting Tennessee back on track, and I'm just happy to be part of this foundation."
Said quarterback Hendon Hooker of the explosive night: "Our goal is go retire the punter."
Tennessee's most likely postseason destinations are Charlotte, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, or Nashville, but that speculation can wait. The Vols just know they're going somewhere.
"I know that things maybe didn't look so good from the outside, but we never really had any doubt with this team," senior defensive tackle Matthew Butler said. "In my heart, I believed we could win every game and go out and win the national championship. That's not how it went, but I never had any doubt in this team."
Tennessee had no chance of winning time of possession Saturday night, as the Jaguars deliberately took the play clock under five seconds before snapping the ball.
"It was kind of funny, because they would huddle, and I'm kind of waiting on the play call," Butler said. "I'm over there in my head thinking, 'What's taking so long?' Then they would get their signal and line up, and I would ask myself again, 'What's taking so long?' Then they would finally snap the ball.
"I'm actually pretty thankful for it, to be honest with you, because we've obviously played some fast offenses."
The Vols produced their 72 plays in just 23 minutes, while South Alabama ran 69 plays with the other 37 minutes.
"I'm not sure that they've played that slow during the course of the season," Heupel said. "We knew that they were heavy shift and motion and would adjust things, and the style of the game was the style of the game. We understood going into it that we were going to have to maximize our drives and our opportunities on the offensive side of the ball."
Senior day plans?
Hooker completed 17 of 20 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns in what may have been his next-to-last performance in Neyland Stadium. The graduate transfer from Virginia Tech was asked whether he planned to go through senior day festivities before next Saturday's regular-season finale against the visiting Commodores.
"I'm not sure yet," he said. "I'm just taking it day by day."
The Wright stuff
Freshman running back Jaylen Wright topped Tennessee in rushing with 83 yards on 13 carries, scoring a 17-yard touchdown at the 6:14 mark of the first quarter to put the Vols up 14-0.
Tiyon Evans, the junior-college transfer, missed his second straight game since sustaining an ankle injury during the first half of the win at Kentucky on Nov. 6. Sophomore Jabari Small got the start and had 11 carries for 73 yards and two scores.
"With Tiyon not being available here the last couple of weeks, Jaylen's growth has been important," Heupel said. "He's continuing to grow as a football player. I obviously haven't looked the tape, but tonight was probably his best football game in some ways. I thought he did some good things."
Said Hooker: "He comes in with the right mindset every day. He's a young guy, so the sky is the limit, honestly."
The Vols entered Saturday ranked 125th nationally in third-down defense, allowing opponents a 47.9% conversion rate. South Alabama was just 1-of-16 on third down, so Tennessee should improve in that category.
"I thought our guys did a good job of matching some things out in some of our man coverages," Heupel said. "We communicated and handled some of the pick routes, and then we got pressure on the quarterback. That was a big part of the football game for us."
Tennessee also racked up 13 tackles for loss, with Kurott Garland and Theo Jackson notching two apiece. The 13 lost-yardage stops totaled 88 yards.
"I thought we changed the line of scrimmage tonight," Heupel said.
Odds and ends
Redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman scored a touchdown in his fifth straight game, the first Vol to achieve that feat since Josh Malone in 2016. ... Cade Mays had a walking boot on his left foot after the game. ... Heupel on tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant, who combined for seven receptions and 73 yards with Fant scoring a touchdown: "Those guys continue to be a huge part of what we're doing."