KNOXVILLE – Representatives from four bowl games with ties to the Southeastern Conference were at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
One of them is going to see the Volunteers at their game in the not-too-distant future.
With a 31-16 victory over Vanderbilt before a crowd of 100,124, UT improved to 6-5 on the season (3-4 in the SEC) and guaranteed a return to postseason play for a program that missed out a year ago.
The Volunteers will conclude the regular season next Saturday at Kentucky and then wait to hear where they will go after that.
“It's icing on the cake,” linebacker Rico McCoy said. “I'm happy to be playing in another game. I just added another game to my senior season. It was a great feeling, knowing I have two more left instead of one now.
“It was exciting to get that last win here. I felt like we owed it to our fans as much as we did ourselves.”
McCoy had a game-high 15 tackles and was just one of several seniors who played prominent roles in this all-important sixth victory, which came seven days after a potentially disheartening 42-17 defeat at Ole Miss.
Running back Monatrio Hardesty rushed for a career-high 171 yards on 30 attempts and scored the game’s first touchdown. Defensive tackles Dan Williams and Wes Brown accounted for UT’s only two sacks, and three of the defense’s tackles for a loss.
Brown then capped the celebratory mood when he intercepted a pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown with three seconds to play. He dragged VU running back Warren Norman several yards before he crossed the goal line.
“Everybody was saying, `That might've been the ugliest thing I've ever seen,’” Brown said. “I felt (Norman) hopping on my back, but I didn't want to be denied. I wanted to score, and I couldn't ask for a better ending.”
He also guaranteed his senior season won’t be ending anytime soon, a sentiment echoed by first-year coach Lane Kiffin.
“(Being bowl-eligible) is very important because of the practice and to be able to continue to develop our young players and to continue to develop as a staff together,” Kiffin said. “The more time we get with our young players, it's very critical for us.”
He can thank some of his older players for the opportunity.