KNOXVILLE – Tennessee will travel 547 miles to Jacksonville, Fla., on its first bowl trip in three years.
The Vols were slotted to play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl when college football’s postseason alignment took shape on Sunday. They will face Big Ten opponent Indiana at 7 p.m. on Jan. 2. They played in this bowl in 2015. Their last bowl was the Music City in 2016.Tennessee apparently was under consideration for the Music City Bowl in Nashville as well.
"Nashville would have been a fantastic destination," Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said during a teleconference Sunday night. "The conference commissioner in the end asks for our preference and we were back and forth on what was best. I think we ended up in the right place."
At 1-4 to start the season, the Vols were halfway around the globe from an early January playing date in northeast Florida. Or so it seemed anyway.
UT coach Jeremy Pruitt’s odometer reads differently. For him, the distance between UT’s face-plant of a start and a 7-5 regular-season finish “wasn’t that far away.”
“I don’t want to take anything away from the teams that beat us,” he said, “but we contributed a lot to that by turning the football over or not playing clean ball or not executing.”
Tennessee won its fifth consecutive game with a 28-10 victory over Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium on Nov. 30. Afterward, Pruitt said that he saw this version of UT during preseason practice but it struggled to makes its way to Saturdays.
“We stubbed our toe a little bit early on,” he said. “That’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
He likely was referencing Tennessee’s 38-30 season-opening shocking loss to Georgia State. The Vols looked underprepared and paid a steep price. The result was compounded by a 29-26 double overtime loss to BYU the following week that was set up by an egregious defensive breakdown at the end of regulation.
The Vols’ response, while significant in nature, unfolded in an understated manner. Even the weekly drama surrounding the quarterback position didn’t faze them. If anything, it seemed to draw the players closer together.
The team meeting after returning to Knoxville from a 34-3 loss at Florida on Sept. 21 wasn’t referenced until weeks later and the minutes weren’t recalled as epochal in nature.
When considered in this context, this distance between Tennessee’s losses and its victories doesn’t seem so vast.
“At the end of the day, we bought into Coach Pruitt’s vision and we worked our butts off every day,” offensive lineman Trey Smith said. “When you do that and you believe in the system, you get the results you see.”
Linebacker Daniel Bituli put more progression in the process involved when describing UT’s season as a fitting slice of life.
“I’ve been preached to multiple times that football is life sped up,” he said. “You’ve got to go through bumps and bruises, but you’ve just got to go out there and persevere.”
As Bituli digressed, however, life slowed and the harried days of September morphed into a fruitful November one well-intended day a time.
“No matter what’s thrown at you,” Bituli continued, “you’ve got to let it go and just keep on working. This team has definitely done that throughout this season. I’m definitely proud of the guys in the locker room for doing that.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org