Tennessee's football season ended about a month earlier than what it had hoped, but at least it ended the way the Volunteers wanted—with a win.
With very little to play for, at least UT can take solace that a victory helps Butch Jones sell the direction of the program to recruits moving forward.
A week after Vanderbilt was the beneficiary of an overturned spot and used it to stun the Vols and knock them out of a bowl game, UT kept playing hard. And for the first time since October's stunning upset of South Carolina, the Vols played well, too, beating Kentucky 27-14.
Tennessee's win means nothing on a national scale, but for Jones' rebuilding effort, it injects a bit of positive momentum into an important offseason. A victory gives Jones another selling point in recruiting, and it marks the first time UT has won more than one game in the SEC since 2010.
Butch: "It's great momentum as we go forward and secure a big-time recruiting class."— Evan Woodbery (@TennesseeBeat) December 1, 2013
With pride on the line—not to mention the school's record of never having an eight-loss season—the Vols dominated the rebuilding Wildcats to end their own rebuilding campaign on a positive note.
In every way it possibly could, this UT team proved it didn't quit on Jones. That will pay dividends on the recruiting trail for the Vols.
Jones was already selling after the game.
Butch: "We were two instant-replay reviews away from being a 7-win team."— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) December 1, 2013
Several seniors had some of the biggest games of their careers in their final showing as Vols.
- Senior defensive end Corey Miller was a one-man wrecking crew on defense, setting a school record by registering 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble, eclipsing Reggie White's previous sack mark. His classmate Jacques Smith added another sack in his finale.
- Running back Rajion Neal had 20 carries for 134 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown run on the game's second play.
- Ray Guy Award semifinalist Michael Palardy had two punts—including a 69-yarder—downed at the 1-yard line and finished with five punts for a 60.4 average.
With UT ahead 27-7 and after Knoxville native Dyshawn Mobley's 53-yard run set up a prime scoring opportunity for the Wildcats, UT came up with an impressive goal-line stand to hold Kentucky down.
Butch: These players gave me everything they have, so I'll always give them everything I have in return.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) December 1, 2013
Finally, after an 0-3 record as a starting quarterback, true freshman signal-caller Joshua Dobbs enjoyed by far his best game. He finished 14 of 23 for 199 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 52 yards and another score.
Dobbs' performance positioned him as the player to beat heading into what is expected to be a four-man battle to be Tennessee's starting quarterback in 2014.
If anything, Jones got his players to improve with nothing on the line. Of course, part of it is Kentucky is terrible, but the Vols were disruptive defensively and did a lot of positive things on offense as well.
It is a small building block for the future. For a salesman like Jones, it's also something he can point to as improvement in the living room of prospects across the nation.
That pitch begins in-state with midterm enrollee and 4-star receiver Josh Malone, who is expected to decide between UT, Clemson and Georgia within the week. If he wanted to see some improvement from Dobbs moving forward, Saturday's game gave him something to think about and something for Jones to talk about.
For everybody predicting a mass exodus of commitments if UT failed to make a bowl, the Vols currently stand at 33 verbal pledges in a class that is expected to grow still. Jones is going to try to turn over the roster as quickly as possible, getting as many of his guys in as quickly as possible.
He's determined to weed the losing mentality out of the program, and the only way to do that is recruit new players. Saturday's win helps him sell, sell, sell—and that is the most important thing UT could accomplish this season, bowl or not.
It's little consolation for a program forced to watch bowl season from its living room once again, but Jones can't be worried about the fans right now. He's building a program essentially from scratch, and he needs the players in that locker room now and the ones on the recruiting board to believe.
Saturday's season finale is proof they still do.