Tennessee easily defeated Northwestern 45-6 on New Years Day in the Outback Bowl. The Volunteers finished the season with six consecutive victories, last losing 19-14 to Alabama in Tuscaloosa on October 24th. Head coach Butch Jones also moved to 2-0 in bowl games at Tennessee, defeating Iowa in similar fashion in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl. Northwestern, despite finishing 10-2 in the Big Ten, were outmatched in almost every category against the Volunteers. Tennessee’s offense sputtered out of the gate early, unable to get much going on the ground or through the air, but most of that can be attributed to not having played in over a month. Tennessee began to find their rhythm in the 3rd quarter, and quickly added on to their 17-6 halftime lead. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs finished the day with 166 yards through the air on 14/25 passing, and added 48 rushing yards with two touchdowns. Running back tandem Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara both added a rushing touchdown of their own, with Hurd amassing 130 yards on 24 carries and Kamara finishing with 53 yards on 11 carries.
While the win column shows a two game improvement from 2014, it’s hard to spin this season as not being a disappointment. As Vols fans will tell anybody who will listen, Tennessee lost four games by a combined 17 points, with two of those losses coming to playoff seeds Oklahoma and Alabama. To make matters worse, Tennessee held two touchdown leads in the 4th quarter against both Oklahoma and Florida, but were unable to close either game out. The Northwestern blowout only further solidified what many fans observed back in September: Tennessee was a very talented team that should have won the SEC East. While winning nine games for the first time since 2007 is certainly an accomplishment (one that earned Butch Jones a cool $500,000 raise), opportunities to reach Atlanta only come ever so often in the SEC, and the Vols squandered a real chance to have a special season.
Tennessee is sure to enter the 2016 season as favorites to win the East division. The Vols return virtually everyone on offense and the defense will be stocked with elite talent all over the field, especially if juniors Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin decide to return for their senior years. The 2016 season will be defined by a brutal 4-week stretch beginning with Florida and ending with Alabama, with trips to Georgia and Texas A&M sandwiched between. It’s been 11 years since Tennessee last beat Florida, and the key to Atlanta starts with ending that streak in Knoxville next September. If the Vols can manage that, simply winning one of three against UGA, A&M, and Alabama should be enough to win the East division and return to Atlanta for the first time since 2007. For this to happen, the Tennessee coaching stuff must get better at late-game decisions to finish off close games against talented teams. The Vols must also find a way to develop their downfield passing game. Tennessee didn’t have a single wideout finish the season with over 400 yards receiving, which is unacceptable given the level of recruiting Tennessee has enjoyed at the wide receiver position. Tennessee will return one of the most experienced and most talented teams not only in the SEC, but the entire country. It’s time for Butch Jones to prove what many Vols fans are desperately hoping – that he indeed the guy who can restore Tennessee back to national relevance.