Much like Nebraska in 2016, Tennessee started the season with an impressive winning streak to enter college football’s Top Ten, being ranked ninth in both polls before stumbling to then-eighth ranked Texas A&M 45-38 in overtime. While pollsters were relatively kind after that loss and a 49-10 drubbing by Alabama, a 24-21 loss to South Carolina was too much. The October 0-3 swoon certainly left doubts about Tennessee both inside and outside the program. Wide receiver Preston Williams and star running back Jalen Hurd both left the program to play elsewhere, and fans throughout the SEC found head coach Butch Jones claims of being "champions of life" extremely humorous.
Losing to Vanderbilt the following week to close out the season wasn’t very funny. It cost the Vols a trip to the Sugar Bowl, though the consolation prize was a Music City Bowl berth just 180 miles from campus. Not exactly a bad consolation prize, but disappointing when the hopes all season long were for a New Year's Day bowl, or perhaps even a playoff spot.
With Hurd’s departure after seven games, senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs (6’3" 210 lbs) leads the Vols in both rushing and passing. On the ground, Dobbs has rushed for 713 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards a carry with a season high 70 yard run against Missouri last month. Through the air, Dobbs completed over 63% of his passes this season for 2,655 yards and 26 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Sophomore Quinten Dormady (6’4" 216 lbs) has played in only four games as a backup, completing 11 of 17 passes for 148 yards.
Junior running back Alvin Kumara (5’10" 215 lbs.) is second on the Vols in rushing with 565 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Kumara missed two games with a knee injury, and is expected to declare for the NFL draft after the game. Projections suggest that Kumara could be a final day pick in this year’s draft. Kumara is also Tennessee’s third leading receiver, catching 33 passes for 346 yards and four touchdowns. Redshirt sophomore John Kelly’s (5’9" 212 lbs.) workload increased quite a bit in the second half of the season. He’s rushed for 560 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Kelly has rushed for over 90 yards in four of the last five games.
Tennessee’s leading receiver is junior Josh Malone (6’3" 200 lbs) who’s caught 45 passes for 852 yards and ten touchdowns (second in the SEC). Sophomore Jauan Jennings (6’3" 205 lbs.) most spectacular catch was the Hail Mary against Georgia, one of 34 catches for 521 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. Senior tight end Ethan Wolf was a preseason Mackey Award candidate for top collegiate tight end; he’s caught 20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns this season.
The Vols offensive line has been a walking M*A*S*H unit this seson, with only one offensive lineman starting all twelve games (at two different positions) and only two starting more than nine. Senior Dylan Wiesman was a second-team all-SEC offensive lineman last season, but injuries limited him to nine games. An ankle injury held him out of the Vols’ final two games this season, but he’s back and practicing. That’s good news because his replacement in those final two games, redshirt freshman Venzell Boulware was ruled academically ineligible for the Music City Bowl. Everyone else who’s been in and out of the Vols lineup looks to be back for the bowl game, which should put Tennessee in their best shape all season.
Tennessee hasn’t had much difficulty this season offensively; it’s the defense that’s been the issue. The Vols rank 71st nationally in scoring defense, allowing 29.3 points per game, and 109th in total defense, giving up 460 yards per game). The Vols Achilles’ heel? It’s their rush defense, giving up nearly 232 yards per game, good for 111th nationally. Missouri and Kentucky each rushed for over 400 yards against Tennessee in November.
Up front, junior defensive end Derek Barnett (6’3" 265 lbs.) is a consensus all-American who’s expected to declare for the NFL draft after the game who likely will be a first round selection. Barnett tied Reggie White’s school record for career sacks against Vanderbilt, so he’ll be out to break the record in the bowl game. His 50 tackles on the season ranks sixth on the team, but his 18 tackles for a loss leads by far, as does his 12 sacks on the season. He also has 12 quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and even an interception. His counterpart on the other side, senior Corey Vereen (6’2" 249 lbs.) isn’t exactly a slouch, with 35 tackles, three pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. His 10.5 tackles for a loss ranks in the top 20 in the SEC this season. But on the interior defensive line, only one of the top five defensive tackles at the start of the season (junior Kendal Vickers, 6’3" 286 lbs.) made it through the season due to injuries and the dismissal of Danny O’Brien.
Injuries hit even harder at linebacker, where the Vols started seven different combinations. Senior Jalen Reeves-Maybin was a second team all-SEC linebacker last season, but a shoulder injury ended his season in September. Sophomore Darrin Kirkland Jr. (6’1" 230 lbs.) fought through a high ankle sprain that hampered him all season long, but might be ready to return to form this Friday. The rash of injuries gave junior walkon Colton Jumper (6’2" 224 lbs.) much more playing time than expected; he led the Vols lineackers with 61 tackles this season.
The musical chairs continued in the secondary where Tennessee trotted out a different lineup nearly every week due to injuries.Senior cornerback Cameron Sutton (5’11" 186 lbs.) missed half of the season after earning second team all-American honors last season, but returned in mid-November. A shutdown corner, Sutton set the school career record for passes defended upon returning from injury, and should be an early pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Junior safety Todd Kelly Jr. suffered an ankle injury a month ago, causing him to miss a couple of games, but still led Tennessee’s defense with 67 tackles and two interceptions. Sophomore defensive back Micah Abernathy (6’0" 193 lbs.) is a rising star on the defense; his 66 tackles were second on the team and three fumble recoveries were key factors in the Vols win over Virginia Tech at September’s "Battle at Bristol" in the middle of a NASCAR race track.
Nebraska’s injury situation, while certainly not as widespread as Tennessee’s, might be more critical; both teams are down their best defender and certainly Tennessee’s offense is in better shape now than Nebraska’s. Can (or will?) Nebraska run the ball enough to take the pressure off of the passing game? Tennessee will get their points; will Nebraska score enough?