It didn’t end quite how they’d hoped, but all in all, it was a pretty magical year to be a member of the Vol For Life club.
Tennessee was arguably the belle of the ball for most of the college season, and with good reason too. A high-octane offense, a coach not afraid to sling the ball all over the yard, and a quarterback that had the countenance and leadership skills of a man twice his age—the Volunteers had it all this year, just not exactly the hardware to show for it.
And that’s not a slight; Hendon Hooker should’ve won the Heisman, or at least been a finalist for it. Instead, it went to a player that painted obscenities on his fingers and got bodied by Utah and Tulane in the two biggest games of the year.
We predicted that Tennessee would make some noise in our College Football Preview Special, and this writer went so far as to say they could challenge for and potentially win the SEC East. And for the first eight weeks of the season, it looked like that could happen. Between Hooker, Jaylen Wright, Jabari Small, Jalen Hyatt, Bru McCoy and Cedric Tillman, the Vols didn’t have an offense, they had a squadron.
The Pitt game first piqued our interest, but the win over Florida is when things started rolling. But the LSU game, that’s when everyone started taking notice.
It was a fun ride, from the beginning right up until Hooker’s injury, too. Even if you weren’t a Tennessee fan—which to my knowledge, no one on our staff is—it was fun to watch. And it felt like everyone got on board.
Between Gameday showing up, the “Tennessee Orange” song making airwaves, and CBS billing it as bigger than an Ali-Frazier prizefight, it seemed like the nation had its eyes on Neyland for the Third Saturday in October.
It may not have been the game of the year, but it was close. Tennessee spent the first half exorcizing 15 years worth of demons and looked like it would blow out Alabama. The stadium, even on TV, sounded like a pressure cooker ready to explode in a cacophony of relief and exuberance.
But Alabama being Alabama, came back and made it a game. And what a game. Back and forth all through the second half of the contest, finally bringing prominence back to a legendary rivalry that had become deflated. Of course, there was only one way it could end.
All eyes were on Chase McGrath, and when his drunken bar crawl of a kick crossed the goal post to seal the first Vol win in 15 years, the pressure cooker exploded.
The fans of course stormed the field, grown men wept openly, the student section jumped in each other’s arms, goal posts were torn down, Clay Travis got a tattoo of Josh Heupel, and the whole merry lot danced in the streets, with even the goal posts getting drunk and jumping in the Tennessee River.
It was a scene for the ages, and the kind that makes college football so magical. This wasn’t about beating Alabama; this was about finally feeling like your program had cast off its shackles and was back.
Sure, Tennessee came up short against Georgia—who didn’t—and unfortunately any playoff hopes came crashing down with Hooker’s injury and the blowout at South Carolina. That was a hard pill to swallow, a 63-38 one at that. But that shouldn’t take away from how magical and fun a year it was.
The championship chase was over, but to Tennessee’s credit, they didn’t just fold. They smoked Vanderbilt and ended the ‘Dores hopes of a bowl bid, and earned themselves a place in the Orange Bowl against Clemson.
In retrospect, it may be the Orange Bowl win that was the most impressive of the season. Several opt outs and injuries led to the Joe Milton III-to-Squirrel (yes, Squirrel) White connection, and despite appearing to be outmanned and with a questionable defense, the Vols shut down Clemson.
The 31-14 win over the Tigers not only sealed the Orange Bowl win for Tennessee, it clinched the program’s first 11-win season since 2001. To put that in perspective, the current UT senior class was in diapers the last time that happened.
As I’ve said on the podcast before, Tennessee doing well, like Texas, Nebraska or USC, is good for college football. They’re a traditional power and parity is good. Anything that keeps the SEC from being a two-horse race is good two. Competition breeds excitement.
So no, there weren’t any conference, National, or even Heisman trophies headed to Knoxville this winter. But when Vol fans—or any of us, really—look back on the 2022 season, I think the adjective we’ll use will be “fun.”
And I bet there will be a smile when it’s said. At least if you aren’t a goalpost.