The second half of the 2019 Tennessee football season has been about making strides.
Since beginning the season 0-2 with losses to Georgia State and BYU, the Vols (7-5, 5-3 SEC) have reached their highest conference win total since 2016, beat a Will Muschamp-lead team and topped Missouri for the first time in three years.
On a soggy Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, they got another monkey off of their back by beating in-state rival Vanderbilt (2-9, 1-7 SEC), 28-10 to snap a three-game losing streak to the Commodores.
Here are the takeaways:
Freshman shines on Senior Night
With two upperclassmen rushers in junior tandem Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler, there have been times this season when true freshman Eric Gray has struggled to get carries.
Against Vanderbilt, Gray officially had his long-awaited breakthrough performance, running for a career-high 246 yards and three touchdowns, including a 94-yard score in the second quarter to put Tennessee up 21-3.
The run was the second longest in program history, coming up five yards shy Kelsey Finch’s 99-yard touchdown run versus Florida in 1975.
Gray’s performance also set a true freshman rushing record, previously set by former running back Jamal Lewis during the 1997 season.
“A record at the University of Tennessee, think about that,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Think of the great runners have come through here. That says a whole lot about everybody involved. It’s a great accomplishment.”
For Gray, Saturday night’s showing was an accumulation of learning experiences between being a freshman back in the SEC to setting records against a rival.
“You’ve got to learn the holes close quick and you’ve got to hit them fast,” Gray said. “I feel like I’ve been able to learn how to be a college running back.
As for Jamal Lewis, Gray wasn’t even born when Lewis set the record more than 21 years ago, but he knew enough about the former Vol’s legendary status within the Tennessee program.
“I know he was a heck of a back,” Gray said.
Tennessee seniors glad to snap losing streaking to Vanderbilt
It wasn’t the rout that many had expected, and the two weather delays and almost constant downpour may have had something to do with that.
For the Vols’ outgoing senior class, the only score that mattered was the final. They just wanted to beat Vanderbilt and avoid an unprecedented four-game skid to the Commodores.
Senior safety Nigel Warrior summed it up simply.
“It felt amazing,” Warrior said.
Redshirt junior guard Trey Smith expounded a little more in his answer, stating that being a Tennessee native made the win all the more important.
“It meant everything to me,” Smith said of beating Vanderbilt. “I’m a Tennessee guy. Restoring things where they should be mean a lot to me. It’s our state.”
New Year’s in the Sunshine State (most likely)
Tennessee locked up their bowl bid in Columbia, Missouri last week after beating the Missouri Tigers, 24-20 to reach six wins.
The win over Vanderbilt almost assuredly locked up a spot in a New Year’s bowl in Florida.
The SEC has automatic bids with the Taxslayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville and the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
The Vols will likely play in one of those games due to the way bids are handed out.
Tennessee last played at the Gator Bowl in 2014, beating Iowa 42-28. They last appeared in the Outback Bowl in 2016, dominating Northwestern, 45-6.
The possibility of a Belk Bowl appearance in Charlotte also remains, but the Vols will have to wait to find out their postseason destination next Sunday when bowl bids and playoff teams are announced.