Tennessee didn’t become the top rated team in the nation overnight.
No one expected Tennessee to be where they are today. The Volunteers went from unranked in the preseason to No. 1 in the College Football Playoff standings as of Tuesday.
It’s been a season of twists and turns, so let’s look back on some of the key moments that helped Tennessee make it to the top.
Trevon Flowers sacks Pitt’s Nick Patti to force 4th-and-goal in overtime
If it wasn’t for Flowers’ sack in overtime on September 10, I probably would not be writing this.
Tennessee’s struggles against a sub-par Pitt team seem uncharacteristic now. The Volunteers went to overtime with the Panthers and scored a touchdown on the first possession of overtime.
Pitt – led by backup quarterback Patti – had no issue moving down to inside Tennessee’s 10-yard line. On third-and-goal, Trevon Flowers came screaming from the slot to sack Patti back to the 21-yard line. Pitt wouldn’t complete the fourth-and-goal, and celebration ensued from Josh Heupel and Tennessee’s sideline.
On the surface, the obvious importance is that Flowers ultimately sealed a win against the then-ranked No. 17 Panthers. A little more importantly – Tennessee was tested and passed with flying colors.
Is Tennessee in the conversation for the playoff with a loss to Pitt? Probably not.
Kamal Haden picks off Anthony Richardson
After recovering the onside kick with 17-seconds left, Florida had a chance to win the game with a touchdown – only trailing by five. On a last-second Hail Mary, Haden intercepts Richardson to beat Florida for the first time since 2016.
This one was tough. Tennessee’s defense struggled most of the game, to say the least. Despite their shortcomings, the Volunteers came up big where they needed to.
This season-defining moment could’ve been the two two-point conversions Tennessee stopped, forcing Richardson to resort to a hail mary instead of a field goal following the onside kick.
This season-defining moment also could’ve been Byron Young wrapping up Richardson on the final play, forcing the errant throw and interception.
Ultimately, I figured Tennessee fans won’t soon forget Haden intercepting the pass, and the celebrations that ensued after.
Jack Bech muffs the opening kickoff against Tennessee
Considered an “underdog,” Tennessee traveled to Death Valley to face LSU. Luckily for the Volunteers, this game was at 11 a.m. local time.
LSU’s returner, Jack Bech, was caught switching sides with the other deep man, forcing him to make an awkward attempt at receiving the kick. He fumbles the kick, and Tennessee recovers.
The Volunteers scored a couple of plays later, and the rest is history. The muff set the tone for the rest of the game. Tennessee left zero doubt about who was the better team in that game.
The Volunteers went on to win 40-13.
Will Reichard miss, Chase McGrath make
This one is probably the most obvious.
With about 20 seconds left in a tied ballgame, Alabama’s kicker Reichard missed the game-winning kick wide right.
It was like destiny for the Volunteers.
With two timeouts and 15 seconds, Tennessee drove down the field to set up McGrath for a 40-yard field goal.
McGrath hit the knuckling kick to upset Alabama, and cement Tennessee as a National Championship contender.
That was the last field goal those respective goalposts would ever receive, as pandemonium reigned in Knoxville following the win.
An honorable mention here would be Alabama runningback Jahmyr Gibbs dropping the wide-open pass from Bryce Young. The pass would not have only given Reichard a shorter field goal, but may have even given Alabama a first down.
Tennessee’s defense versus Kentucky
This one is a lot broader than some of the others, but with good reason.
Tennessee held Will Levis to just 98 yards on Saturday, picking off the quarterback three times. Tennessee had not held an opponent to under 200 passing yards all season, much less 100.
The Volunteer’s defense was suffocating on Saturday, the first time we have seen that caliber of performance out of the unit that is considered Tennessee’s biggest weakness.
Tennessee was also able to rest some starters thanks to the defensive performance that kept Kentucky out of the game, helping the Volunteers prepare for Georgia.
With Tennessee traveling to Athens this weekend for arguably the biggest game of the season, the Volunteers picked a great time to figure out their defense.
The player who recovered the muffed kickoff at LSU was Will Brooks. The announcers didn’t say his name once in spite of replaying the recover numerous times. This kid is a walk-on who made one of the biggest plays of the season, but no one wants to mention his name and give him credit. Will Brooks. Say it with me. Will Brooks. I’m not sure why no one wants to mention the kid’s name.
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