The best Senior Days are the ones in which you know you have unfinished business. Tennessee football hasn’t had a Senior Day like that since 2007, when the Vols came back from 24-9 to beat the Vanderbilt Commodores 25-24 and win the SEC East.
Since then, the only Senior Days with significance were ones to clinch bowl games, and let’s be honest. That’s barely a prerequisite for unfinished business. UT played such games in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2014. Playing for something greater is always the goal.
On Saturday, Tennessee football was playing for something greater. They still have a shot at the College Football Playoff, and to their credit, they played just like that. In fact, that’s a huge departure from where previous Senior Days were for them.
During the Peyton Manning years, the Vols struggled sometimes on Senior Day, as the Vanderbilt Commodores always gave them issues. In 1997, they were No. 3 and in the national championship race and had to beat a horrible Vandy team to win the East. They only won 17-10.
Seven years later, they nearly lost to the Kentucky Wildcats after clinching the East in what was a hideous performance. As we mentioned, they nearly cost themselves the East when they had to come back to beat Vandy back in 2007.
No SEC East is in play right now, but style points are in play, and Josh Heupel made sure he delivered those. The Vols enjoyed Hendon Hooker’s final game at Neyland Stadium by scoring 66 points, the most in the Heupel era, and gaining over 700 yards of offense.
Hooker then drew from history and pulled a Manning from 1997, getting on the ladder and directing the Pride of the Southland Band. When Manning did it, the sense of unfinished business was clear since they had to pack for Atlanta to face the Auburn Tigers the next week in the SEC Championship game.
However, that’s the way you want it. You want Senior Day to be a celebration of what the seniors did for the program with the understanding that more is to come. Unlike 1997, though, that celebration was met with a show this time around.
Hooker didn’t owe Vol fans anything heading into the game. Everybody was appreciative of what he had done for the program already, turning them around from an SEC dormant to a championship contender. He didn’t rest on his laurels, though.
Now, unlike previous years, this rendition of Senior Day was a little bittersweet because of how the Vols lost to the Georgia Bulldogs the week before. UGA clinched the SEC East later that night, so this is a Senior Day with no SEC Championship in play.
At the same time, though, Tennessee football still has a lot to play for, and they weren’t distracted by what’s to come or the emotions. In the process, they put on one of the best Senior Day performances in years, and it became an afternoon to remember.