KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee scored its most-lopsided victory in seven years, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Vols needn’t apologize to anyone, having played the toughest schedule in the nation entering their homecoming game against FCS Tennessee Tech on Saturday afternoon.
Tennessee improved to 6-3 with the 55-0 win over the Golden Eagles (3-6), but the score didn’t matter as much as the style points.
Butch Jones said it was one of the bigger postgame celebrations in recent memory, and that was because of the amount his players invested into their preparation in the days leading up to the game.
The Vols snapped a three-game losing streak with the win, and just as importantly, Jones was able to clear the bench and get several deserving young players repetitions.
Tennessee hadn’t really had that opportunity before, playing from behind in each previous game but one — and that was a 28-19 victory over Ohio that didn’t afford the breathing room to substitute liberally.
Jones said some of the substitutions against Tennessee Tech were as much out of need as anything.
“Any time you can gain live game speed repetitions, it’s a good thing,” Jones said. “But you could also see our lack of depth revealed itself.
“We’re very banged up and limited in a number of positions. That’s why I’m so proud of this team, the resolve and resiliency they’ve shown is impressive.”
It was Tennessee’s first game without junior tailback Jalen Hurd, who told Jones he wanted to transfer last Sunday and was granted his release from the program earlier this week.
Jones said Hurd’s departure wasn’t any sort of a distraction for his team.
“There was no drama inside our building, and you know me by now, I’m going to be brutally honest and candid with you,” Jones said. “There wasn’t anything in our building in terms of distraction and clutter.
“On the outside it may have seemed that way, but I’m telling you, they were very driven and very focused.”
The Vols now must focus on Kentucky, as their game next Saturday against the Wildcats at Neyland Stadium (kickoff time has not yet been announced) is bigger than many might have expected.
Tennessee can win the SEC East Division and a trip to Atlanta to play in the league title game if it beats Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to close the season, AND Florida loses to either South Carolina (at home, next Saturday) or at LSU on Nov. 19.
“I just said this to the coaches, ‘That’s one of the most spirited celebrations we’ve had in the locker room and that’s relative to the contributions and investments of everyone this week,’” Jones said Saturday night. “I can always tell, when you lose a game, how are they, that’s a refection of their investment, and when you win a game it is, too.
“There was a lot of excitement and energy, because you never take winning for granted.”
No doubt, the last time Tennessee football was 6-3 was in 2007, which was also the Vols’ most recent trip to the SEC championship game.