Lexington, Ky. – Following the 14-10 defeat at the hands of the Vanderbilt Commodores on Nov. 23, the Tennessee Volunteers hopes of a bowl game were washed away.
But even with the season-long goal of playing in the postseason gone, the Vols still looked forward to the challenge of finishing the season on a strong note and creating momentum heading into the offseason.
When it was all said and done, the Vols did just that as they defeated the Kentucky Wildcats 27-14 inside Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.
"We talked about needing to be 1-0 for our football program moving forward with our offseason strength and conditioning program, with recruiting, just momentum going into spring football," head coach Butch Jones said. "I thought our kids really showed up and played winning football."
The Vols opened up the game with a 37-yard kickoff return from junior wide receiver Devrin Young, which set the offense up with solid field position on their own 40-yard line.
Two plays later, senior running back Rajion Neal bounced a run outside, sprinted down the Kentucky sideline and 60 yards later, found paydirt.
The rushing touchdown did more than just give the Vols an early 7-0 lead – one that they would not relinquish throughout the course of the game – it also pushed Neal over the 1,000-yard mark for the season; a milestone no UT player had accomplished since Montario Hardesty in 2009.
"It was on my mind all week," Neal said on his thoughts of potentially being a 1,000-yard rusher. "I was like, 'Man, I just cannot go in here and not get these 10 yards,' but to get it the way we did and to keep the momentum that we had, it felt good.
"It was well-deserved for those guys up front and on the perimeter that helped me out all year."
Neal was far from the only senior to take center stage in Tennessee's victory, however.
Defensive end Corey Miller recorded 4.5 sacks, breaking the Tennessee record held by Reggie White, and the offensive line – comprised of four seniors – was instrumental in the Vols ability to rack up 417 yards of total offense.
The offensive explosion came one week after the measly 237 total yards the Volunteers were able to scrap together in their loss to the Commodores.
"They mean so much to our football program and they've been through a lot," Jones said in reference to the seniors. "We've chronicled it every week and to be able to get a victory on the road was very fulfilling to see that happen for these kids. Like I said, they've been through so much.
"They've been remarkable in terms of buying in and doing everything we've asked of them," Jones added. "To get this victory was very special to them."
The victory marked the first true road victory for the Vols since Nov. 20, 2010, when they defeated the Commodores. It also allowed UT to avoid their first eight loss season in the history of the program.
As for the future of the program, the page has already been turned toward Team 118 as Jones already has his mind set on getting better next season.
"I want to continue to stay positive and move forward, but it's expected that we go to bowl games from here on out," Jones said. "That's our goal. We're going to have some time off and take advantage of the time we have moving forward and we'll be back and right into our offseason strength and conditioning program on Monday."