As Evan Berry churned downfield with a 100-yard exclamation point in the final 10 seconds of the Tennessee Volunteers' Outback Bowl blowout over the Northwestern Wildcats, he resembled a runaway train.
The sophomore defensive back personified the Volunteers' expectations heading into what is certain to be a hype-filled offseason. The buzz surrounding the Volunteers is going to be off-the-tracks.
After looking like they'd forgotten their morning coffee early on, the Vols played their most complete game of the season, producing highlight after highlight in a 45-6 laugher.
Though he was a game-time decision with an unspecified injury, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd powered his way to 130 rushing yards and a touchdown to haul home MVP honors.
Quarterback Joshua Dobbs finished with 214 total yards and a pair of rushing scores, and the Vols defense corralled four interceptions.
The victory was thorough and undeniable, and it gave the Vols a 9-4 final record—with six consecutive wins to close the season. The only setback in the season's final eight games was a 19-14 loss at Alabama in which UT held a lead with less than three minutes to play.
Tennessee isn't close anymore; the Vols are ready to contend for bigger and better things, and that starts now.
Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald stood in front of the media afterward, offered no excuses and even gave his opinion on how things are going to shake out between now and the beginning of next season:
Wes Rucker @wesrucker247
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald: I'm sure people will pick TN to win the SEC and us to stink based off this one. You know blog narratives.1/1/2016, 8:48:00 PM
That's pretty hard to argue.
You think you were sick of all the Vols talk last offseason? Wait until this one. Everybody is going to be trumpeting Tennessee, especially after the whipping the Vols put on Northwestern.
Big, bad Alabama still stands in everybody's way atop the conference. But after Friday, it's hard to not like where the Vols are headed, and while the nation watched the game, writers and fans across Twitter oohed and ahhed at the talent head coach Butch Jones has assembled.
It was on display, play after play.
Sure, UT outclassed the Wildcats from a talent and speed standpoint, but that was the 13th-ranked team the Vols made look silly. UT defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie joked on Twitter after the win that all Northwestern's book smarts didn't matter between the lines:
Kahlil McKenzie Jr. @K_Mac_99
That GPA ain't save Northwestern on the field1/1/2016, 9:49:02 PM
The poster child for the "Did that just happen?" play was Dobbs, who delivered the game's most special snapshot.
Early in the fourth quarter, the junior signal-caller had to reach down and pick up an errant snap from Coleman Thomas. After gathering the ball, he sprinted to the edge and toward the first-down marker, just trying to pick up yardage on third down.
But after beating two defenders to the corner, Dobbs tight-roped the sideline, narrowly avoided the white paint that would have marked the end of the play and dove for the end zone.
The 18-yard touchdown run was a microcosm of the speed discrepancy Northwestern faced and perhaps a harbinger of things to come for the Vols in SEC play next year. Led by Dobbs, who'll be a senior, they should be one of the most talented teams in the nation.
Coach Warren @DemetricDWarren
Josh Dobbs is a Stud! #GoVols #OutbackBowl #NW https://t.co/WrYyexvTfw1/1/2016, 7:41:34 PM
Charlie Burris @Charlie_Burris
DOBBS. https://t.co/bD5PkDAguA1/1/2016, 7:36:36 PM
Then there's Hurd, the 6'4", 240-pound sophomore cinder block who could have watched this game in street clothes after suffering an injury in practice leading up to the game.
Instead, he played and, at times, took over. On 25 touches, not once did he have a negative play.
When Hurd wasn't blasting through big holes the UT offensive line opened, he was lowering his shoulder and punishing defenders. On one particular run, he stiff-armed Wildcats defensive lineman Xavier Washington, shedding the would-be tackler like a winter coat:
Safe to say trying to tackle Jalen Hurd is not without punishment. https://t.co/wvsHGOQFNr1/1/2016, 7:41:03 PM
Berry's 100-yard interception return in the waning seconds capped the victory. While Tennessee didn't need it to win, it served as the perfect end to the season and helped usher in the immense expectations that will follow the Vols from here to September.
It's not something that will come as a surprise to the Vols, who, quite frankly, should have finished with a better season than they did. Though nine wins were what most predicted, UT blew fourth-quarter leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama.
The Vols were that close to a special season, so it makes the 2015 campaign a little bittersweet. Friday will help everybody on Rocky Top remember it fondly, though Jones couldn't make it through the postgame interview without ESPN sideline reporter Quint Kessenich bringing up next year.
"You always have expectations when you're at Tennessee," Jones answered. "It doesn't matter."
Those comments sounded like they came from a coach who has developed a little bit of swagger and not one who was trying to deflect buzz with excuses of youth and inexperience.
Rather than the culmination of the season, Jones spoke of Friday's win as a springboard for things to come:
Tennessee Football @Vol_Football
JONES: Any time you win a January bowl game against a team that was 10-2, that adds credence to what we're doing here.1/1/2016, 9:06:08 PM
Tennessee's core nucleus, led by Dobbs and Hurd, will return in the fall. While it would be a major benefit for the Vols if the trio of cornerback Cameron Sutton, running back Alvin Kamara and outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin also came back for one more year, they've got talent to replace them.
Losing senior left tackle Kyler Kerbyson and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil will sting, but capable underclassmen await.
The Vols picked up commitments from 3-star defensive back Baylen Buchanan and 3-star offensive tackle Nathan Niehaus following Friday's win, according to VolQuest's Paul Fortenberry. Those guys fill major needs in this class.
So the hype is already paying dividends.
Prior to Tennessee's game Friday morning, Bleacher Report colleague Barrett Sallee took to Twitter with a prophetic proclamation about what awaits:
Barrett Sallee @BarrettSallee
Win or lose, though, get ready for the sequel to the Tennessee Hype Train. It’s coming for the next nine months.1/1/2016, 4:29:40 PM
That was only cemented by what transpired in Tampa, Florida.
Throughout the game, some national media members—such as USA Today's Erick Smith—began the buzz early, while others—such as Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel—got in their snarky digs while they could:
Erick Smith @erick_smith
Tennessee starting 2016 in impressive fashion. Vols poised for big year ahead. Playoff not unrealistic expectation.1/1/2016, 7:59:42 PM
Stewart Mandel @slmandel
So does this mean Tennessee will be vastly overrated going into next season or just slightly overrated?1/1/2016, 7:58:00 PM
Some of the same, old deficiencies that must get fixed between now and next season reared their heads against Northwestern: Dobbs' downfield throwing struggles, gaps in the defensive front seven and crucial mental mistakes. But UT overcame those with a huge advantage in talent.
In the nation's toughest conference, the margin for error is much narrower, but Tennessee took some major steps toward competing in important games this season. Everybody took notice of that, especially in front of a national audience as the calendar flipped to 2016.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the Vols had the nation talking with their dominating performance in the Outback Bowl. Between those heralding and those hating, Tennessee is on the tips of everybody's tongues yet again.
Don't expect the Vols to shut up anytime soon.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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