At the 30th anniversary of the Outback Bowl, The University of Tennessee showed why they will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2016 campaign with a 45-6 thumping of the willing but undermanned Northwestern University. The Vols, with NFL-level talent on both sides of the ball, simply out-athleted the Wildcats in every phase of the game.

The game was going to be won and lost in the trenches and Rocky Top controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage.  That was much to the delight of Volunteers Head Coach Butch Jones.

“Well, I thought the one drive, I believe it was a 13‑play drive, 13 or 14‑play drive, and we established the line of scrimmage, and it’s a mindset and it’s a mentality that we’ve worked since, what, December 7 three years ago of being tough mentally and physically”, Jones stressed. “You know, Mike DeBord has brought another element in terms of toughness.  I think that showed today.  You know, and pounding with patience with the run game, and I thought the play action game, I thought Josh did some very good things in the throw game early.  The one 3rd and long to Von Pearson, that really changed field position.  That was a big play. I thought our receivers played well today, and our last backs or tight ends caught the football.  I thought we played complementary football, and you guys hear me say it all the time, but the great teams, the teams that win, they play complementary football in all three phases, and we were able to do that.”

Running back Jalen Hurd, who was voted the MVP of the game, echoed the thoughts of his coach when asked how important was the play of the Vols offensive line and the conditioning that was needed to sustain the double-digit play drives Tennessee was able to compile especially in the second half.

“Very, and going back to that drive, I was just thinking the whole time, summer workouts, summer workouts, because summer workouts is probably the hardest conditioning we have,” Hurd stated. “Anybody coming there, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be hurting in the summer workouts, so I was thinking of that , thinking how hard we worked over this time, and just trying to push through.”

Wildcats Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald, who is now 0-2 in the Outback Bowl appearances, was disappointed in their performance but proud of the 10-3 season that his troops had posted.  In comparing the two losses, he feels that this one will be just as hard to recover from as the first overtime heartbreaker to Auburn.

“Yeah, neither”, Fitzgerald lamented.  “You learn and you grow, you know.  I’ve been doing this now in this role for 10 years.  It’s one game.  When I put the Gator Bowl trophy next to us a few years back, we knew it was one win.  It was one big win for our program with the monkey that we had on our back and the narrative, but from the standpoint of this is one game at the end of a spectacular season.  You know, unfortunately we’re going to have some guys that it’s going to be a little while for them to get this game and their play off their chest, and the same thing for us as coaches, obviously.  It starts with our plan.  I thought our guys really prepared well.  We just weren’t able to take it into today, and so I’ve got to tip my hat and credit Tennessee.  I thought they played pretty clean.  We thought we were going to have to turn them over from the standpoint of their skill set to steal some possessions from them, and we had obviously four turnovers on our end and one for a touchdown there at the end of the game that really was insignificant, but those three that were significant. You know, you just move on.  You learn, you grow, you flush it, and you move forward, and you know, you just hope that with the way society is today that ‑‑ what are they called, trolls or something like that, on Twitter?  You know, that they get a life.  You know, its one game, and it’s disappointing and we’re heartbroken, but you move forward.  You take all the great lessons that we learned today, all the great lessons we learned throughout the whole season, and you learn from it and you grow and you get better next year, and that’s when we expect to do. Been doing this for a long time now.  You’ve got to flush it and move forward.”

The good news for Northwestern, according to Fitzgerald, is that this setback will not hamper recruiting whatsoever.

“Oh, we’re killing it in recruiting”, Fitzgerald exclaimed.  “I’m not worried about that.  We’re going to always go, not only just starting our recruiting in Chicago, but we’re going to go national.  We’ve got 20 plus states on the roster, and we’ve got 20 great guys in the boat.  We’ve got a young man showing up here, Tommy Carnifax, in two days. Yeah, two days he’ll start his first class.  He’s already signed his tender and ready to go.  Excited about him and looking forward to that.  And then from the rest of the class, we’ve got a little bit of work to do, but kids want to play for a winner.  They want to play and get a great education from a great school and be prepared for life.  We’ve got those in place, and now the new facilities we’ve got on board, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but those are great catalysts and great things to look forward to until the future.”

Northwestern has some work to do to get and stay at the elite level of college football.  Tennessee, on the other hand, is on the cusp of going to the next level and that’s to make an appearance in Tampa next year in the Championship finals.  Hurd, along with his teammates and coaches, are well aware of the site of the 2017 finals.

“Absolutely”, Hurd exuded. “We’re already prepared for it.”

And don’t be surprised if Raymond James Stadium is awash in Orange next years for the finals. Clemson is there this year and, with 39 true and redshirt freshmen in the lineup, probably a year ahead of schedule. Tennessee is right on schedule.

Could we see the Tigers and Rocky Top in Tampa next January?  It wouldn’t surprise me one bit.