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Nichols: Celebrate, Tennessee, Because Josh Heupel’s Vols Are Just Getting Started

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Let's be honest here. This game was never really in question. 

Not when Hendon Hooker almost threw an interception on 3rd-and-13, not when Tennessee's typically hot-starting offense mustered just 51 yards in the first quarter, not when Vanderbilt receiver Will Sheppard hauled in a 56-yard touchdown pass to end the first half, and not even when the Commodores pulled within 17 in the second half.

Despite some bizarre inconsistencies from UT, at no point on Saturday did anyone inside Neyland Stadium remotely consider this Vanderbilt team worthy of upsetting a Tennessee squad that's been trending upward through most of this season. 

Why? Because this UT team is so focused, so dialed-in every week, that there is no question whether the Vols will rise to the challenge against teams Tennessee is supposed to handle. 

Such was the case last week against South Alabama, as the Vols refused to look past the Jaguars at the possibility of bowl eligibility. 

Such was the case again Saturday, too, even though Vanderbilt did its best to make things interesting. 

Ultimately, though, the Vols' focus won out from start to finish. Theo Jackson took a 55-yard interception to the house on Vanderbilt's first possession, UT overcame a sluggish start for a 24-0 lead, and Jaylen Wright added a late cushion to dismantle the Commodores 45-21. 

This marks the seventh win of Josh Heupel's first season -- the most regular-season victories for any first-year UT head coach since the Great Golf Ball Guru himself, Lane Kiffin. 

Now, Tennessee fans, feel free to celebrate. 

Not because this program is doing as well as it did in Kiffin's first season, which ignited so much optimism that the feeling couldn't help but melt into rage when he bolted for USC. 

But because Tennessee survived -- and is now close to thriving? -- despite the insanity that followed Kiffin’s chaotic departure. 

You all know what happened. I won’t rehash it again here.

The fact that this team is humming the way it is, though, after all this program has endured, is remarkable.

And it’s also not even the tip of the iceberg for Tennessee’s potential.

“We haven’t even reached the ceiling or the peak of what we can be,” Jabari Small said. “The future is bright.”

For that, you can thank Josh Heupel, who said that his staff had to “show these guys what it looked like to play at a winning level.”

But you can also thank Tennessee's seniors, all of whom bought into these coaches and some of whom were rightfully honored before kickoff.

Ja’Quain Blakely. Matthew Butler. K’Rojhn Calbert. Grant Frerking. Trevon Flowers. Kenneth George. J.T. Siekerman. Donovan Slates. Tanner Dobrucky. Theo Jackson. Velus Jones. Cade Mays. Chase McGrath. JaVonta Payton. Aubrey Solomon. Alontae Taylor. Caleb Tremblay.

Those are the Vols who ran through the T for the final time under a crisp blue sky on Saturday afternoon.

And those are the Vols who rightfully celebrated the most on Saturday night.

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“A group of young men that, in life, there’s no doubt these guys are going to be successful,” said Heupel, his voice cracking as he grew teary-eyed. “Football prepares you in a really unique way for that. For all of them, I’m grateful for their buy-in and their ability to communicate. What was working, what wasn’t… that laid the foundation for how to move forward in those early moments.”

In some of those moments, things sure looked bleak. 

Think about when Heupel was hired — what this program had just seen, the level of apathy from the fan base, and the presumption that this season would end up at 5-7, if that.

Now, think about the fact that the Vols turned that worry upside-down — and, little by little, lifted fans’ frowns into smiles, too.

The expressions remained on Saturday night, as Tennessee’s players rejoiced in whatever ways they saw fit.

Calbert looked toward the sky with a wistful smile, then ate a W. Butler swayed arm-in-arm with band members, grinning all the while. And Blakely leaped into the student section, an emotional high, before channeling his feelings in a different way when he knelt at midfield during his final exit from Neyland Stadium.

It's worth noting that, roughly three hours before Blakely’s knee hit the orange grass of the Power T, his quarterback classmate — Hendon Hooker — did not join his classmates in a final run through Pride of the Southland’s famous formation.

Does that mean Hooker will return for another season? We’ll see, considering Heupel emphasized the importance of being mentally prepared for the pro level.

“You have to make sure they’re in the right frame of mind,” he said. “But when it’s time for those guys to jump, shoot, nobody’s happier for those guys than me and this staff.”

Hooker, meanwhile, brushed off pressures about a timeline and said he would make the decision “whenever the time is right.”

Is there any Tennessee quarterback since Peyton Manning whose return could generate that much buzz, though? I don't think so, even with Hooker leaving late Saturday before his left hand was stitched back together from a cut.

Whether Hooker and his hot right hand hand stay or go, though, they certainly did their part to lead a razor-thin roster to the most success this program has seen in a long, long time.

And now, like you, the Vols can celebrate that feat. 

Not just because they survived a 2-10 Vanderbilt team. Not just because, by beating the Commodores, they did something to which Tennessee teams used to be far more accustomed. Not just because their coach reached the most wins since Kiffin, who is now leading a team bound for the New Year's Six. 

But because they rebuilt this thing together, in a way that makes the people inside this program grin with pride. 

“It feels good,” Jackson said. “Just knowing everybody is having fun around here. Us seniors, we’ve been through tough times. But building something, it makes it special.”

And now, that rebuild on steroids is headed to the postseason.

Where, exactly? No one is sure. Representatives from the TaxSlayer Bowl and Liberty Bowl were both present Saturday. 

Regardless of the destination, though, one belief is constant: that this team’s upward trend is just the beginning for the Heupel era.

And for a program and fan base that have endured as much as Tennessee’s, that kind of sustainability has to feel really, really good.

Cover photo via Jake Nichols