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Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt holds his son Flynt as he poses with players, including wide receivers Marquez Callaway (1) and Jauan Jennings (15,) after the team's 23-22 win over Indiana in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla. / AP photo by Bob Self

The best team won the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Thursday night.

So did the best coaching staff.

That's not to say Tennessee always played best throughout this 23-22 victory over Indiana. The Volunteers did not. Especially on offense, where they often looked like a football team that hadn't taken a snap since Nov. 30, which they hadn't, not since beating Vanderbilt to wrap up the regular season.

But as in so many other victories this season, they played just well enough to win a game they trailed in the fourth quarter, behind 22-9 against the Hoosiers midway through the final period in Jacksonville, Florida. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, so off so often through so much of this game, was at his best when it mattered most, which is what he's so often been throughout his career. The defense, so dominant in the first half, played well enough thereafter to give the offense a chance.

And then there was second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt's brilliant decision to go for the onside kick with the Vols trailing 22-16 with a little more than four minutes to go. The Vols' defense was probably good enough to have stopped the Hoosiers on a short field if that gamble failed.

But that wasn't a certainty. It rarely is in those situations. But a more perfectly executed onside kick rarely has been performed. The ball traveled the exact 10 yards necessary before Eric Gray recovered it. Exactly. Ten. Yards.

Then Gray wound up scoring the winning touchdown (with Brent Cimaglia's extra-point kick) a couple of minutes later and was named player of the game, though that could quite rightly have gone to a number of players, including Guarantano, Nigel Warrior or freshman linebacker Henry To'o To'o, who should be an All-American a year from now.

Bowl games are funny things. They often hinge on how much one team wants this. Or, more importantly, needs it.

Judging from the massive Big Orange crowd on hand, however much the Indiana program may have needed this to prove it's once more a bit more than a basketball school, Tennessee's fans certainly sent a signal that no program in the country wanted to win a fairly mediocre bowl more than they.

If you want to know why Tennessee often moves ahead of where they might deserve to go this time of year, that turnout by the fans is one reason why.

But the team's effort was equally impressive when it mattered most, as has been the case pretty much ever since they beat Mississippi State to move to 2-4 for the season following those back-to-back losses to Georgia State and Brigham Young to open the season.

Thursday night made six straight victories for the Vols to end the season. Yes, there are more holes to fill than most people think, because this team does have more than a few seniors of note.

But it also has much stellar youth already on hand and more on the way. Moreover, Pruitt fairly swiftly has taught his players to never quit, no matter how bad they may start a game.

(Vols game snapshot: Tennessee rallies late to beat Indiana in TaxSlayer Gator Bowl)

Look at the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division a year from now, and only Florida would appear to be a near-certain notch above the Vols. But the Gators must also visit Knoxville, as must Alabama. It would still seem an upset for UT to reach next season's SEC championship game as the Beast of the East, but not nearly so much so as two months ago.

One side note from Thursday for all those Volniacs who thought Jauan Jennings didn't deserve that half-game suspension the senior received for the first half of the Gator Bowl. If anyone could watch the replay of the end of the play that earned Jennings that suspension, the play in which he rather forcefully planted his shoe on the face of a Vanderbilt player — the replay that ESPN ran near the start of the game — and not believe that SEC-ordered suspension was warranted, well, your view of sportsmanship and fair play is different than most.

But that doesn't mean he wasn't a wonderful player and leader throughout his career. Or that Jennings, perhaps more than any other Vol, wasn't responsible for this turnaround. The receiver's will to win was undoubtedly the best on the team. And someone else, perhaps To'o To'o, will have to at least somewhat duplicate that if the Vols are to pick up in September where they've ended the 2019 season.

Near the close of ESPN's telecast Thursday, they mentioned a quote from Jennings after that awful opener against Georgia State.

"I didn't sign up for a one-game fight," he said that day. "This is a 12-game fight."

Actually, it became a 13-game fight, one that wrapped up with a bowl win that could have been a bowl loss.

That it wasn't was a credit to all concerned who were a part of this Tennessee football team. Especially their savvy head coach.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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