Tennessee Game Grades Music City Bowl Edition
Tennessee capped off a cathartic season with a convincing win against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Music City Bowl. The Vols secure their ninth win for the second straight season and wins its third bowl in a row. It hasn’t won three bowls in three straight seasons since the 1994-1996 seasons, a full twenty years ago. They’ve now beaten a Big Ten West team in a bowl in three straight seasons after crushing Iowa and Northwestern the past two years. And they closed the gap on Nebraska, who now have a 2-1 all-time series lead coming into the game, with all three contests in bowl games.
It’s cathartic because Tennessee fans have to be happy with the nine wins and bowl win. And you can’t deny that Tennessee is as good as it’s been in well over a decade. But Tennessee fans are still bitter over a season that many consider lost. The SEC is clearly down this season, and the SEC East especially. With an inexplicable loss to South Carolina and another disappointing loss to Vanderbilt, Tennessee watched its SEC East Championship hopes slip away.
Tennessee Game Grades Music City Bowl Edition
Tennessee’s offense continued their strong second half performance. After a sluggish start with inconsistent passing and two critical penalties, the Big Orange offense settled in and went for over 520 yards against a good Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts came into the game 23rd nationally in total defense. It was another balanced attack, with a per rush average of 6.6 yards helping to control the time of possession and a passing attack that created key big plays. And Joshua Dobbs’ rushing effort produced over 100 yards, two third down conversions, and two more touchdowns.
Offensive Stat of the Game: Zero Offensive Turnovers.
Joshua Dobbs ended his Tennessee career on high note. Dobbs was simply magnificent. After starting the game with a little rust, Dobbs finished with 291 yards of passing offense and 118 yards rushing. He accounted for four touchdowns, one through the air and three on the ground. The senior quarterback finished the season just a dozen yards short of passing Peyton Manning‘s all-time Tennessee total yardage record.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) December 31, 2016
Running Backs: B
It was Alvin Kamara or John Kelly‘s best day, but it was an effective Vols rushing attack that provided for a third down conversion rate or 43% and wore down a depleted Nebraska defense. Kamara and Kelly added another 101 yards to Dobbs’ 118. In total, the Volunteers had 230 yards of rushing against the nation’s 33rd ranked rush defense. In typical fashion, the Cornhuskers had to choose who to defend in the run game and while they were relatively successful against Kamara and Kelly, that enabled another monster day from Dobbs.
No position group has improved more during the season than the receivers. There were a couple of drops today, but Josh Malone had five receptions for 120 yards and Jauan Jennings and Alvin Kamara added 13 more receptions. Not on the stat sheet, but Ethan Wolf and Jason Croom had a fantastic day blocking, providing key blocks on at least three plays that either enabled a first down or a big rushing play.
Offensive Line: A-
It looked like the offensive line was as healthy as they’ve been all season — even game one. Jashon Robertson had a fantastic game at guard, and Drew Richmond showed some of the promise of his highly-touted recruitment. Dobbs did feel some pressure today, but there were lanes to escape. The line expects to return four of five starters, so this is a tantalizing good sign moving forward.
This may have been the defense’s most complete performance of the season. Nebraska came into game averaging 178 yards of rushing per game. Couple that with Tennessee allowing Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt over 1,000 yards of rushing offense, and you have to consider today’s effort a stunning success for the defense. Tennessee entered the day ranked 110th in rushing defense. 110th out of 128 FBS teams. Granted, the absence of Tommy Armstong, Jr. played a significant part of that, but Tennessee isn’t going to listen to anyone complain about injuries.
Defensive Stat of the Game: No Question: 61 Rushing Yards for Nebraska.
Defensive Line: A+
The defensive line is gutted with injuries, losing Khalil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, and Danny O’Brian earlier in the season and losing Dimarya Mixon to a suspension on the eve of the Bowl Game. They were literally playing their third string defensive tackles and still clogged up the running lanes and controlled the line of scrimmage. Jonathan Kongbo, LaTroy Lewis, and Kendall Vickers played inspired. And of course the pass rush disrupted Cornhusker quarterback Ryker Fyfe all day. Derek Barnett played like a man possessed and finally captured the all-time sack record late in the fourth quarter. It was a nice end to the season to see the locker room leader celebrated by his teammates for an incredible accomplishment. Unit of the game, without a doubt.
Tennessee’s Derek Barnett just passed a legend to become the school’s all-time leader in sacks: the Minister of Defense himself. pic.twitter.com/bdqWzTHm2J
— ESPN (@espn) December 31, 2016
You didn’t hear much about the linebackers tonight, and that’s OK. Cortez McDowell and Darren Kirkland, Jr. both had seven sacks apiece. Kirkland, Jr. had several big hits and set helped set the physical tone on defense, along with Barnett. Colton Jumper and Kenny Bynum were solid in platoon duty.
Defensive Backs: C
Malik Foreman and Micah Abernathy both struggled in coverage during the game and Marquill Osborne also yielded a touchdown. Fyfe had 243 yards through the air and that was Nebraska’s only real method for moving the ball. If the pass rush hadn’t been as intense as it was, there’s a good chance the damage on the back end would have worse.
Special Teams: B-
The one real downside to today’s performance was the special teams. Tyler Byrd had a critical fumble on a kickoff return and Aaron Medley had two kickoffs go out-of-bounds. Medley did convert his one field goal attempt. Trevor Daniel was hot and cold today, but came through when they needed him. Coverage teams were solid, but not quite as good as usual.
This isn’t going to be popular, but I think the coaches did a very good job. It was clear that Tennessee — including the players that are expected to be high draft picks — were prepared and ready to go. They were motivated. And you can tell by the way the team ended the game that they respond and enjoy playing for Butch Jones. There’s a lot of discussion over the state of the program and Jones’ ability to lead the program. This game says a lot about that. Yes, it’s been a disappointing season, but the team responded today and clearly enjoy playing for their coach.
Here’s another unpopular take: Mike DeBord called a good game. Maybe not perfect, but he went away from Dobbs in the air when he was rusty and played the hot hands when they hot. He kept Nebraska off-balanced and guessing. He mixed up the plays nicely. There were wrinkles as well, particularly Jennings in the direct snap three times. Another strong offensive performance to end the season.
The defense was clearly motivated, and Shoop’s willingness to blitz late crushed Nebraska’s comeback hopes. If only the defensive backs would just turn around.
It’ll be an interesting off season. First up, what will Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara, and Josh Malone decide about next season? All three could join Cam Sutton as NFL draft picks. Barnett is almost certainly a top fifteen pick. Next, can Jones close another top ten recruiting class. And of course the narrative about Jones’ ability to manage this program will continue. It looks like Tennessee is losing a lot — and they are — with the departure of Dobbs, Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and which juniors decide to leave. But the Vols will return at least eight starters on both sides of the ball.
The lead up to next season might be different; it will likely be much more pessimistic and centered around Jones’ future. But with the East still likely to be down, the ending might just be different as well.