By Jimmy Hyams
Hendon Hooker could do little more than wave a towel.
The same could said for receiver Cedric Tillman.
Offensive lineman Gerald Mincey couldn’t play and he was joined on the sideline by two other linemen – JJ Crawford and Jerome Carvin – after kickoff.
Five defensive backs were ruled out.
“We’re a MASH unit everywhere,’’ said Tennessee coach Josh Heupel.
It didn’t matter. Tennessee ran over, around and through Vanderbilt’s defense, and a Vols defense that was historically bad against South Carolina pitched an improbable shutout as UT routed its in-state rival 56-0 on a rainy night in Nashville.
“They don’t put an asterisk on who played and who didn’t,’’ Heupel said after his team destroyed Vandy to record the program’s first 10-win regular season since 2003.
They also don’t put an asterisk on bounce-back wins.
No one was quite sure how Tennessee would react after getting blown out 63-38 by South Carolina the week before (the most points UT has allowed since 1893). It ended UT’s hopes of making the four-team College Football Playoff. And the Vols were without Hooker. And Tillman. And three starters from a weak secondary.
True to its next-man-up mentality, Tennessee looked every bit the part of a CFP team.
It had four touchdown runs of at least 50 yards and averaged a stunning 11.7 yards per carry (362 yards on 31 attempts. It had a 73-yard punt return. It had a 61-yard pass play on the game’s first possession.
And to think Tennessee did this to a team that won at Kentucky two weeks ago and upset Florida 31-24 last week.
Tennessee did it to a team that had won five of the previous 10 matchups in this series.
But this was no contest.
Tennessee needed a fast start to erase the sour taste of losing at Carolina. It got just what the chef ordered.
The Vols scored on two of their first three possessions, then Dee Williams returned a punt 73 yards to make it 21-0.
Vanderbilt, which was entertaining hopes of a bowl eligibility, never challenged.
In the second half, Tennessee scored on a 52-yard run by Jabari Small, 50- and 83-yard runs by Jaylen Wright and an 80-yard by freshman Dylan Sampson. Wright finished with 160 yards and two touchdowns on five carries.
Joe Milton, possessor of a cannon for an arm, filled in for Hooker and did OK. He hit the 61-yard pass on the first drive, fired a 7-yard scoring pass to Walker Merrill, and ended up 11 of 21 for 147 yards and a touchdown. He wasn’t accurate on many deep throws, but he didn’t have to be, not with his running backs going the distance from long range four times.
Tennessee gained 513 yards in just 16 minutes, 15 seconds time of possession.
It took Vanderbilt’s woeful offense 43 minutes and 45 seconds to gain 254 yards.
Tennessee, whose run defense ranked 16th in the nation, knew Vandy would focus on the run. Vandy managed just 147 yards on 47 carries. Ray Davis, who had three consecutive 100-yard games, was limited to 60 yards on 21 carries.
Vandy quarterback Mike Wright looked like a deer in headlights in the passing game, hitting just 7 of 13 throws for 28 yards. This was the same guy that had three touchdown tosses against Florida.
Any resemblance to the Vandy team that beat Florida last week was not found amidst the rainy conditions.
While it’s hard to quantify the absence of emotional leader Jeremy Banks in the defensive collapse at Carolina, the linebacker’s presence was certainly felt against the Commodores.
Maybe not having Banks against the Gamecocks was, indeed, a huge deal. That doesn’t mean UT would have won in Columbia. It does mean UT’s defense is much better with Banks on the field.
Now that Tennessee has won 10 regular-season games for the first time since 2003, it will be interesting to see what happens in the CFP rankings and the bowl scene.
Tennessee should climb from No. 10 to No. 7 on the CFP rankings, ahead of three teams that lost: LSU, Oregon, Clemson. You could argue the Vols should be ahead of a team it defeated head to head: Alabama.
And Tennessee has put itself in position to be in a New Year’s Six bowl, whether that’s the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl.
Nobody saw that coming two years ago.
Nobody saw that coming entering this season.
And not many saw it coming entering October.
Heupel couldn’t help but reflect on what, to date, has been a marvelous journey for UT football.
“Two years ago when I took the job,’’ Heupel said, “to think we’d be here with 10 wins ….
“I’ll got to battle with these guys every day.’’
He’s got one more battle to fight with his team.
The destination will be determined next week.